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Higher Ed Presidents Talk About Ethical Business Leadership

We complement our Ethix Conversation in Issue 30 by talking individually with three other higher education presidents. Though they come from very different perspectives, they join Bob Spitzer and Bill Robinson in being ultimately hopeful about future ethical business leadership.

Al Erisman

Lee Huntsman has served as interim president at University of Washington since November 2002. Prior to this he was provost and vice president for Academic Affairs. Dr. Huntsman received his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from University of Pennsylvania in 1968. He joined the UW faculty in bioengineering in 1968 and later became the director of the Center for Bioengineering.


Phillip Eaton has been at Seattle Pacific University for ten years, as provost and then president for the last seven years. He received his Ph.D. in American literature from Arizona State University. Dr. Eaton has been a faculty member in English and American literature. He also spent eight years leading a family-owned commercial and industrial property development company in Phoenix.


Thomas Cronin has served as president at Whitman College since 1993. In 1991 he was acting president at Colorado College. Dr. Cronin received his Ph.D. in 1968 in political science from Stanford University. He has taught at several major universities, is the author or co-author of ten books, has been a moderator at the Aspen Institute, and served in the White House as a White House Fellow.

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Ethix: What was your reaction to the recent wave of business scandals?

Lee Huntsman: Well, I have two reactions. One is, ethical failures are inherent in the human condition. We shouldn’t be surprised. On the other hand, this isn’t just an ethical lapse. It comes across as really flagrant dishonesty. So the magnitude of what we have seen is a bit shocking.

Tom Cronin: These current episodes are disheartening to say the least.  As you well know there have been scandals throughout the history of American capitalism. These scandals represent a failure of character. Sadly, character of a positive type has not been encouraged or honored to the extent it should be in this country or around the world.

Phil Eaton: These scandals have been painful to people affected by them, to American business and to all leaders. And, by the way, we must be careful not to throw the stones, but to reflect on our own leadership and our own character. In response we have seen a tremendous flurry to draw up laws and to define tighter restrictions. While these may be necessary to assure consequences for the incredible violations we have seen, I don’t think the solution is going to come with more regulations. We need to be talking about character. We need to be talking about moral vision for leadership.

What can and should colleges and universities do about this in preparing the next generation of business leaders? And what is your institution doing?

Cronin: Liberal arts colleges have a responsibility to have students study character. Whether it is studying Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Shakespeare, ethics, philosophy, or political science, one can get grounded in what character is all about.  We’re far less preoccupied with vocational or specialized education than we are with questions of breadth, and questions of what is right. There is no fundamental restructuring of education needed, though perhaps there should be a sharpened emphasis to be certain these examples in the ethical issues in the private sector are discussed.

Eaton: At Seattle Pacific University we focus on developing graduates of competence and character, and we have a vision to engage the culture and change the world. How do you engage a culture that is broken around issues of honesty, integrity and character? You go after it by the way you are educating students. It affects how we design curriculum and activities for students. It is how we communicate a sense of vision for their lives. I believe that character formation is right at the heart of all that we do. Of course, ethics is a vital part of our professional curriculum (for example, business, engineering and nursing), but we deal with ethics in other areas as well.

Some would argue that most character formation is done before a person comes to the university. But I did a lot of shaping and choosing what life was going to be as an eighteen to twenty-two years old. I was enormously influenced by professors and books and by interactions in the residence halls. What kind of life choices am I going to make? What kind of vocation is shaping up for me? What are the bigger questions about calling and sense of purpose in life? Of course then the questions about who am I going to spend my life with? These are huge things that happened in that period of time. I think the college moment of life is a great time to be sorting these things out. I think this is something our university encourages. We come alongside our students in this process.

Huntsman: I wouldn’t presume that a university is the place where basic, foundational values are taught. I don’t want to dismiss the role of the university, but the fundamental values are shaped at an early age through the home and early childhood education. We all hear about parents worrying about their kids going off to college, worried about what they will learn from this radical professor or that. My experience says the basic values instilled in them as children stay with them.

That being said, the large research university offers a particular setting to explore values. You have this immediacy of connections to the forces of technology, for example. Not just information technology but also biotechnology and other things are pushing the envelope, providing an environment in which you can also explore values.

Are religiously oriented colleges and universities at an advantage in dealing with issues of values and ethics?

Eaton: We are fundamentally committed to what difference it makes that we are a Christian institution in the way we deal with these questions of character formation. How do we fully integrate our commitment to Christian faith, our Christian heritage and a biblical world view? There are no easy, set answers: it is taking that rich and deep and ancient biblical tradition and bringing it to bear on our conversation. A major challenge for Christians is to live this out in a decidedly pluralist world. We don’t impose our world view on anybody else. It’s engagement. Engagement means going both ways. It means articulating a position but it also means listening.

Huntsman: Well, my feeling is the fundamental ethical principles transcend religious individual religions. I also believe the Judeo-Christian tradition rooted in the value and worth of the individual is dramatically more fundamental to societies than we give it credit for. The value of the individual is the basis of an ethical fabric that spans all ranges of belief systems. So I don’t know that a secular university is terribly handicapped.

We have another opportunity because of our large international population. In our culture, performance is driven by the individual—individual performance by students and individual contributions by faculty members.  In other cultures, where community is more highly valued, they may see nothing wrong with helping a fellow colleague. For them, this may be a higher value, whereas we might call it cheating. So we have a platform to explore these issues, understanding both individual and community values.

But there is a lot more to ethics than integrity. Integrity only gets the showcase right now because of the corporate scandals. For example, when an employee has an ethical lapse, the question of offering discipline with a second chance or firing the person is an ethical issue as well.

Cronin: We are not tied to a sectarian faith or sectarian dogma of any type. Perhaps that’s freeing in the sense that it provides us a greater independence. Large numbers of our students are practicing members of various religions and we have a strong department of religion that has specialists in Christianity, Buddhism and Middle Eastern religions. I can’t say if we’re better equipped or not. I suspect that people who have a religious heritage believe that they are more centered and relevant to raising questions of righteousness and so on. I’m not convinced this is the case.

In spite of the scandals, do you have hope for future, more ethical business leaders?

Huntsman: I do. One of the things that impresses me is that the culture shapes the people as well as the people shaping the culture. We have some deeply ingrained cultural values that come to bear on those who would violate the standards of conduct that have been established.

I am a scientist, and I know the power of what I call “pet ideas.” But in the end you have to be willing to submit your pet ideas to the fire of scientific evidence and the evaluation of your peers. And scientific misconduct is still a hot topic. This is an example of cultural norms shaping people; scientists involved in fraud are still dealt with harshly.

We’ve learned we have to be very careful in setting goals, both in a university and in business. We are trying to instill values in the university that include collaboration and cooperation. If we focus the goals too tightly on individual or department level performance, we should not be surprised at a lack of cooperation in achieving broader goals. So in a business, how performance measures are set may lead to violation of deeply held cultural commitments. We must work very hard on our measures.

Cronin: I’m a teacher but I’m also a realist that human nature is such that we’re going to have people who are selfish and who act because of greed. The founding fathers of this country believed optimistically in the common sense of the common person. However they also believed in the Madisonian checks and balances and separation of power. We believe in a free market capitalism but we also understand the need for a state that has to impose regulations and accountability.

The question is how onerous and how restrictive are these checks and balances? You can bureaucratize and regulate everything to such an extent that there is no entrepreneurial spirit and there is no one to run for public office. We must encourage the human spirit and imagination without drowning in a sea of regulations.

Eaton: Absolutely I have hope. Leaders have to think this way. I grew up in a business family. My dad was an entrepreneur and a successful developer, and would make deals on a handshake. I actually saw him lose money on a business deal rather than change his word. That has been ingrained in me deeply. We may live in a much more complex world than my father, but reputation is still critically important. Ultimately, it is good business, and if you lose your reputation your business will suffer.

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