Moving toward an ethical culture

By Dr. Rita Kirk

Ever notice how one hundred hours of doing good doesn’t make people perceive you as ethical, but one lapse of judgment can brand you as unethical for life? That happens to organizations just as easily as people. Grappling with a group identity is a difficult thing. The recent stories such as the NCAA sanctions and fraternity theme party improprieties are evidence of this. It only took the actions of a few to once again tarnish the reputation of SMU. So the question is: are we a healthy organization that makes occasional mistakes or are we corrupt and in need of repair?

One of the drivers of our reputation seems to be sports. There is no doubt that we earned the 1987 NCAA death penalty for the football program. Our culture was corrupt. Our response? “Everyone is doing it.” Without sports, we seemed to be lost. Yet that break provided us a unique moment of reflection to ask, “What is the proper role of the university?”

SMU made a commitment to change its culture – its entire culture. Under the leadership of President Kenneth Pye and now R. Gerald Turner, the reconstituted Board of Trustees sought to correct the fallacy that “the only thing that matters is results.”

In 1995, Cary Maguire endowed the Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility with the charge to elevate the academic mission so that the culture might begin to shift. Its first director was one of the nation’s foremost academics in the field of ethics: William F. May. A series of thoughtful provosts began driving the academic mission and the faculty was properly positioned as a driving force in accomplishing the university’s mission.

We are a different culture than the one that existed in 1988. We still make mistakes – that is well documented. But this time we own our own words and actions, try to make amends, and actually think about what is right and what is just. We have moved from a culture where wrongdoing is derived from a pattern of corruption upheld by the highest levels of the university to an organization that is committed to doing things the right way.

That culture shift didn’t happen because the Ethics Center served as the moral police for the campus. It happened because our community became reflective, thoughtful, and learned culture. During this last academic year, the Ethics Center hosted 16 events that drew 2,100 attendees and partnered with 18 different organization and departments on campus. SMU awarded 103 pins to Veterans in our community and supported eight student public service fellows who worked in five countries. We facilitated the enhancement of seven current courses and added 11 new ethics courses to the curriculum.

But so what? Bad decisions made by a handful of individuals who still think the central focus of SMU should be winning in sports at the cost of our ethical principles has hurt us again. You know what the distinction is? Students who had no part in the misconduct are asked to pay the price. If we believe that learning is possible, we must accept that we have the capacity to do better.

I’m going to say something pretty unpopular in certain circles: I like Larry Brown. I like that when we finally had our first hopeful season in basketball he started the tweet #FinishTheRightWay. I like that he called upon our supporters to think about how they represented this university. I like that he will serve the sanctions without making the claim it’s unfair because, after all, “everyone else is doing it.” The lesson? Even at the end of our careers, we are still making mistakes and still trying to do better.

My father was fond of saying that when things go wrong it’s important to do the next right thing. We need to redouble our efforts, as President Turner suggested in his Opening Convocation speech, to have ethics as one of our central goals. I love the 1963 SMU Master Plan statement that claims that we must:

“educate men and women who can think and express their thinking with logic and effect; who know their own tradition in the perspective of other ages, ideas and values and who can understand the problems, issues and challenges of their society and time … and who realize the nature of being and are prepared to probe the ultimate questions of life and to relate their own humanity, sense of self, and deepest aspirations to those of others in a creative, constructive way; it is thus the aim of this University to encourage in its students both natural individuality and the development of the whole person….”

If we as a community truly believe that ethics matters, we will indeed be “world changers.”

Rita Kirk is Director for the Cary M Maguire Center for Ethics & Public Responsibility at SMU.

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