William P. Robinson & Robert Spitzer: Can Ethics Be Taught?

William P. Robinson has been president of Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, since July 1993. Before coming to Whitworth, he served as president of Manchester College in Indiana. A communications scholar, Robinson was educated at the University of Northern Iowa (B.A.), Wheaton College (M.A.), and the University of Pittsburgh (Ph.D.). His new book on leadership is Leading People From the Middle: The Universal Mission of Mind and Heart (Provo UT: Executive Excellence Publishing, 2002). Robert Spitzer, S.J., has been president of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, since 1998. Prior to his appointment at Gonzaga, Spitzer served as a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and Seattle University. He was educated at Gonzaga University (B.B.A.), St. Louis University (M.A.), Gregorian University, Rome (S.T.B.), Weston School of Theology (Th.M.), and Catholic University (Ph.D.). His latest book is The Spirit of Leadership: Optimizing Creativity and Change in Organizations (Provo UT: Executive Excellence Publishing, 2000).

◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

Ethix: Our era has seen a lot of business scandals. From your vantage point in the university, could education play a role in preventing such scandals?

Robert Spitzer: Universities have typically oriented their ethics courses toward the study of hard cases and best practices. Both of those fulfill a need and are incredibly important but there are some gaping omissions when teaching ethics solely from those vantage points. For example, students don’t get a chance to examine their own ethical values. They are given a set of criteria that are fundamentally grounded in utilitarianism. The utilitarian method looks at consequences—harms and benefits—and students are taught that the best resolution will be the one that gets the widest swath of people to agree. But the utilitarian method doesn’t ask the question “should we” before it asks “how much can we.” Universities have to stop this leap to utilitarian thinking. The difficulty at Enron and other scandal-plagued businesses started when top business decision makers didn’t ask “should we be secretly off-loading all this debt” but rather “how much can we off-load before it becomes material.” When you start with that kind of thinking, it is easy to move the line. You start out with five percent; then you need a little revenue boost so you push it to ten percent; when you are still not competing so you go to fifteen percent. Everybody says “fine” but what you have is group rationalization. So universities need to back up and start with character and then with the reintroduction of “should we” into our decision-making processes. We also need to bring our individual, personal principles out into the open and then look for an understanding of what we believe are our principles as a group. Universities need to habituate their students to the appropriation of their own individual character. They also need to help students examine how groups are formed around character. For example, how do we as a group make an integrity statement and then call each other to that integrity which is before any hard case and before any best practice? University students ought to know three things about ethics. First, they ought to know who they are ethically—what criteria and what principles they hold. Second, they ought to know how to form ethical communities around them. For that, all they need are six or seven good questions that everyone agrees must be asked before making decisions that significantly affect other people. Third, they ought to know how to connect their principles to hard cases and best practices. The university must not fail to help students tie their personal integrity to the real world situations they are going to encounter. Bill Robinson: We need to do three things during the college years. First, we need to greet our students with the message “this is the real world.” The college world you live in right now is every bit as real as the world that our business counterparts are in. The things that you do right now will shape you and form habits and values. Don’t be deceived into thinking that what you are doing right now isn’t real. What happens in college will have an influence on how you live your life. Second, we need to explain to our students in all of our courses (not just in ethics and business) that, over the long haul, integrity is good business. The most important asset any leader has is the trust of his or her people and that is based on integrity. Ultimately, integrity is better business than short-term maneuverings to make your quarterly statements look better. Third, we must help our students develop strategies for living ethical lives and doing business in an ethical kind of way. For example, we must stress the critical nature of openness, of light. Openness is purifying. Openness builds trust. If everyone at Tyco, Global Crossing, Enron, and WorldCom had been committed to openness—if their business offices had been open, if their expense reports had been available to anybody who wanted to review them—I don’t think we would have seen what happened.

Bill, in your recent book on leadership you described a way you decided to demonstrate openness in your use of the Internet. Could you tell us about that?

Robinson: A couple years ago, some of our students were having trouble with pornography on the Internet. I decided to set an example of openness by telling our IT people that they have carte blanche permission to look at my own Internet logs. No need to ask me, just go ahead and look at any web sites I have visited. Operating in the light like that keeps us from that incremental process of decay.

How Best to Teach Ethics

Many universities have launched ethics-across-the-curriculum programs in recent years. Meanwhile there has been a trend away from the liberal arts and humanities and toward vocational studies like business and health care. Can ethics be taught in a robust way in the absence of the broader texture of history, culture, and literature wrestling with the purpose of life?

Robinson: My only fear about ethics-across-the-curriculum is that when something becomes everybody’s responsibility it becomes nobody’s responsibility. If someone is making sure that it is happening it can be a good thing. Ethics education also may work better in a private, church-related college or university where a moral code is embedded right in the core mission statement, than in a public, state university where a bright line separates state from church and ethics from its typically-religious grounding in people’s lives. Complete ethical relativism is vacuous and hurtful to students. Spitzer: In our core curriculum all students have to take ethics from either a philosophical or a theological perspective. Then our director of ethics-across-the-curriculum is responsible to ensure efforts are made to tie the principles and methods learned in the general ethics classes to learning opportunities in business or professional classes. This kind of ethics education sticks much more with our graduates when they get into future situations in their professional life. We actually have some data that supports this. For example, a graduate will say “I got into this situation and then I remembered when my professor was teaching us he stopped and took five minutes to say what we should do if this situation happens to us.” The down side of this approach is that it can be a bit disjointed or haphazard and unrelated to a broader view of life, history, and culture. The up side is that it is concrete and practical and seems to stick with our students. Robinson: We require a core course about the nature and formation of a world view. That subject connects to ethical integrity if you think of integrity as wholeness. Ethics then gets contextualized in business and other courses where students are presented with specific, problematic situations going on in the world.

Is University Ethics Education Already Too Late?

Some commentators think it is already too late to change student character and ethics by the time they come to the university or business school.

Spitzer: Some of our character development happens in grade school and high school but by no means all of it. For example, some of our college students teach character development in nearby high schools. They have to think of creative ways of communicating ethical principles to the high school kids. They can’t just give them a theoretical course. They must truly engage them. Our college kids might have the high school kids create a collage of advertisements and then analyze the values the ads are promoting. The college kids are being educated in their ethics and values by this exercise just as much as the high school kids they work with. Robinson: There are two ways ingrained values change: sustained influences and cataclysmic events. Educators have to look for ways to have a sustained influence on students and their values from the time we greet them until the time we hand them their diploma. We also have to look for the cataclysmic events in their lives and in our world and tie their ethical awareness and reflection to those events.

So something good could come out of all of the recent business scandals.

Robinson: Yes, particularly if they are cataclysmic for any of our students, such as having their parents’ retirement ruined by a corrupt business failure. Spitzer: There is a silver lining to these clouds. People are going back to the good old fashioned approaches that preceded today’s case methods. The literature of ethics is changing, with more references to character, principles, and community.

The Religious Dimension of Ethics

The religious orientation of both of your universities may help you teach values and ethics on campus but is it an advantage when your students graduate and enter a diverse workplace?

Spitzer: I think it is. Many people become strong ethical leaders because of the faith tradition in which they grew up. It gave them the essence of who they are. Their sense of being accountable before God strengthens their ethics and character. Their accountability to a religious community, a church, shapes their conscience. Expediency may lead us in one direction but then conscience draws us back. A profound sense of alienation from both God and the community can be felt if we start to cross an ethical line. Robinson: The influence depends a little bit on the nature of that faith foundation. If the value of faith is based on some consequences, then I don’t think it will endure. The secular world will present a different set of consequences for various behaviors. But if faith is based on what is pleasing to God, on what we understand is right, irrespective of consequences, it can be an enduring guide. If faith is understood as involving accountability to a faith community, students will likely carry that sense of accountability with them into the business world. If it is exclusively private and individualistic, then it is more vulnerable when you get into secular society. Spitzer: This generation is moving from fear-based accountability to authenticity-based accountability. Few today are motivated by fear of divine punishment if they are unethical. Much more common is a sort of “I don’t like myself” accountability. Today’s students feel this much more poignantly than my generation did. That’s a good trend. Students with, and students without, religious faith are motivated to be ethical by a wish to be authentic and to be at peace with themselves about their decisions and actions.

Measuring Educational Impact

How do you know whether you have succeeded or not in your ethics educational goals?

Spitzer: The most common way is anecdotally. You could create some focus groups of folks who are now five or ten years into the workplace. Was their ethics training useful to them? It is very difficult to do a valid long-term longitudinal survey because the people most likely to respond to the survey are the ones who are most motivated about ethics.

In addition, how can you do an adequate quantitative study of a qualitative phenomenon?

Robinson: This is a great question with no easy answer. As a behavioral scientist I know how difficult it is to deal with the qualitative-quantitative issue. One thing that has been helpful to me is to meet with focus groups of young graduates. You can see the early seeds of a pattern when you talk to someone two or three years out—what they are struggling with, how they dealt with the politics of a situation, and what kind of ethical pressures they have experienced. Spitzer: You can only ask whether they have used ethical principles in their decision making process, and whether or not they have tried to form a moral community. One interesting measure is the composition of various ethics boards and committees at companies, hospitals, and government agencies. I would wager that these ethics boards draw far more than twenty percent of their members from the private, religiously-based colleges and universities (which supply about twenty percent of the graduates in the workforce).

That would be wonderful. My impression is that it is mostly lawyers on these committees.

Spitzer: There is always at least one lawyer for the simple reason that their professional expertise is essential. But where did these lawyers go to school? The lawyers taking the time to serve without pay on ethics boards often got their ideals shaped by a private, religiously-based university.

The University as a Business Ethics Model

Are you also teaching ethics by the way you treat your employees—your faculty and staff—and your customers—students and parents? Are you consciously modeling a value-driven approach to organizational leadership?

Robinson: Yes, I think about it a lot and I intentionally try to demonstrate it. When I get together with our employees, faculty and staff, several different times each semester, I lift up the virtues that are so important to our community. That creates pressure and expectations on me to exemplify what I’m talking about. The reason why staff development and training is so important is that these values are learned through repeated exposure. When our students see it in the faculty and then in someone on the physical plant staff and then in the registrar’s office, they begin to internalize a way of thinking about ethical values and about treating people. This modeling can have a fairly significant impact on students, in a pretty efficient way.

What about “product” development? Does your process for developing academic programs model a mission and values emphasis rather than just a marketing emphasis?

Spitzer: We have five areas in our mission statement: faith, service, ethics, justice, and leadership for the common good. Your true dedication to your mission is always measured by your willingness to apply resources to it. So first, we appoint a director for each of our five areas. If no one has the ball and is directly accountable, all the best intentions in the world won’t make it happen. Second, the directors work with us to form a strategic plan. Third, the programs must be adequately funded so they will continue. Fourth, the new programs must be integrated with each other and with the academic curriculum. If all of that happens, you are going to have some success. It may be hard to measure it but students will attest to what they are taking away. Even five years later, graduates walk up to me and tell me of something that really stuck with them. Repetition is a key to having the mission drive your development. The five areas of our mission statement, faith, ethics, service, justice, and leadership, get mentioned all the time. It’s like the faith of a salesman. My salesman brother always tells me one call will never do it; two times, it’s starting to stick; three times, they’ll remember your name; four times, they may give you a call back. There is some truth in this for educators. I used to put our strategic plan, called Momentum 2007, up on an overhead all the time. I finally knew I had communicated successfully when people would look at it and just roll their eyes.

Values and Global Diversity

As the business environment becomes more global and diverse how do we find the right balance between maintaining our own moral passion and authenticity and respectful collaboration with colleagues of very different faith, values, or philosophy?

Robinson: My own view is that genuine Christianity should make the world a better, more hospitable place for non-Christians as well as Christians. We try to model that with Muslims and other non-Christian students on our campus by accepting, respecting and working for them as much as for anyone else. Spitzer: In secular or pluralistic contexts, I often try to talk about faith from a generic or inclusive point of view. There are many commonalities among religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—such as wanting God’s will to be done on earth. People who are interested can have separate meetings to explore their own traditions more specifically but it is always important to find common ground and common language for inclusive, diverse communities. Robinson: In every presentation I have made about my new book, Leading from the Middle (most of them in non-religious settings), I have closed by describing how I got the title from my own leadership role model, Jesus, about whom St. John wrote “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us, and we beheld his glory.” It takes courage to dwell among the people, where they can observe you. If the leaders of businesses like Tyco, Global Crossing, and World Com had walked “in the middle” where the people could “behold” them, rather than remaining above where nobody could see them, we wouldn’t have had the scandals. So my experience is that it is possible to bring a powerful idea you learned from your faith into a diverse world. The reactions I get are very positive.

Ethics: Upward or Downward Trend?

Are you hopeful for the future of business and society?

Spitzer: Very much so! I think the current crisis is reorienting ethics. There is real interest, much more than in my own generation, not only in principle-based ethics but also in faith issues. I also think the desire for authenticity has become stronger than the fear of retribution and this bodes well because it is an intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation for ethics. So, yes, I have a lot of hope. Robinson: I think we’re in a much better place ethically than we were five years ago and I hope that doesn’t change if economic prosperity returns. I am a little concerned that American economic prosperity and moral health can get inversely related.