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Faculty essays | Finding truth in the academy

Institution of Ethics

TCU's mission statement, adopted four years ago, came with a bold goal: To educate individuals to think and act as ethical leaders. It's a grand concept. One that begs the enormous question: How? .

By Rick Waters '95



A few semesters ago, engineering major Katie Gordon '03 looked around campus and didn't like what she saw. Classmates were cutting corners, pawning off writing that wasn't theirs, and in some cases, flat-out cheating. Some were caught. Most were not.

"This wasn't the TCU that I chose to attend. It wasn't the TCU that I love," said Gordon, who graduated in December and is now an intern in the White House Personnel Office. "It was cheapening my education and ultimately my degree."

As a member of student government, she initiated a project to research honor codes at other universities, ultimately concluding that TCU needed more than just another chapter in the Student Handbook.

"What we really needed was a culture change. I saw a lack of ethical ownership among students," she said. "We had an environment where the administration set up the rules and students had to follow them, but there wasn't a lot of buy-in."

Her push led to the Integrity Council, a panel of students, faculty and staff members dedicated to upholding academic honesty. Inspired by current school policies and faculty feedback, the group developed the University's first integrity pledge: I pledge myself as a member of the TCU community to the continuous pursuit of personal and academic integrity through individual accountability.

Last summer, incoming freshmen wrote their names to that oath during orientation sessions. Then on first day of class last August, those new Frogs signed a banner bearing the same pledge and walked under their own signatures at Freshman Assembly.

It was deep and meaningful symbolism. As one faculty member put it, "It was the perfect way of saying, 'This is who we are.' "

Just who are we?

Defining TCU and what it stands for has been considered with new depth and intensity in recent years, and much of the talk revolves around the University's mission statement. Since its unveiling in 2000, its 17 words have been the subject of essay contests, been printed on coffee cups, displayed prominently at commencement, debated among faculty and strategically placed in the rehearsed speeches of campus tour guides.

But in a world where pirating music is commonplace, corporate greed runs rampant and dishonesty often gets rewarded, is it naive to believe that a university can teach students to be ethical leaders and responsible citizens?

"Not only is it realistic to teach it, it is essential that we teach it," said Chancellor Victor J. Boschini Jr. "Let me put it this way: Teaching ethics is like the goal of achieving world peace. It may not be realistic in my lifetime, but I better be working every day toward it. A lot of teaching ethical leadership is chipping away at it every day, learning a little more, thinking about it a little more."

Four years into the mission, not all the answers are apparent, but many are within view:
• The University's new core curriculum is being constructed with ethics and leadership among its primary ideals.
• The Neeley School of Business has launched classes on ethical decision-making and will make them mandatory in the fall.
• The Leadership Center has expanded its noncredit co-curricular offerings to include volunteering, cultural understanding and mentoring.
• The University now hosts an annual ethics forum, sponsored by Delta Gamma sorority, that attracts nationally prominent panelists, such as NCAA President Myles Brand who spoke on ethics in athletics this winter.

In every effort, the goal is the same -- encourage students to identify situations with ethical implications, learn ways to think critically and then find answers, all while exploring their own personal values.

Core questions

The University's new core curriculum is more than a year from its debut, but conversations about teaching ethics have swirled for months in the committees that are shaping it.

One hallmark of the faculty's blueprint is a section labeled Heritage, Mission, Vision and Values. Inspired by the University's mission, HMV&V is a collection of six courses, 18 credit hours, that represent the TCU ethos. Students will have to take one course from each of the six "mission" areas -- religious traditions, historical traditions, literary traditions, cultural awareness, global awareness, and citizenship and social values. The last of the six will encompass the University's ethical leadership doctrine and has drawn the most debate.

"There has been a push at the University to incorporate leadership into the curriculum in some way," said philosophy professor and committee member Richard Galvin. "At the same time, there was the realization on the part of faculty that a rigorous ethics requirement could not be imposed across the board without massive personnel changes. So the faculty combined the ethics part with leadership into this category of citizenship and social values."

The decision grew from a determination not to make the core too big. Thirty-nine hours were deemed a manageable burden for students in professional programs, yet individual colleges retain the flexibility to build on the core.

"The University did the right thing, which was to try and serve both masters -- leadership and ethics -- and do it disjunctively, one or the other," Galvin said. "They're doing a good job at this by laying it out very clearly and describing what criteria will be required to certify a class as meeting the ethics requirement and similarly the leadership requirement. We can't be all things to all people."

Combining the two in one category was more than a compromise, said committee member and music professor Blaise Ferrandino. "Citizenship and social values includes, but goes beyond, ethics and leadership," he said. "The decision to call it Citizenship and Social Values is more representative of the TCU ethos." Furthermore, the more the committee members talked, the more they concluded that ethics and leadership are a natural fit. "

What good is it to have someone who is shaped with a good ethical value system who doesn't exercise leadership? And who wants a leader without a value system?" said Nadia Lahutsky, religion professor and chair of the Faculty Senate. "It's not enough to say we want great leaders; demagogues can be great leaders, but they use their leadership for the wrong things. So it's not hard to connect ethics and leadership. You need the two to go together, and that's how citizenship and social values came to be one category."

And that is something TCU can deliver, she said. Everyone must take a course in ethics or leadership. Many students will get both.

"Those who don't see themselves as leaders may not gravitate toward courses that explore leadership," said Lahutsky. "They may gravitate toward courses that have an ethical value component. How do we think through those complicated issues and not just make knee-jerk reactions? Or what does it mean to be a citizen? Any of those, we think, will inform students as they become ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community. In an ideal world, they would get all of those."

The committee was pleased with the outcome, Ferrandino said.        

"We can improve on this core without throwing it out and starting over. But, in my opinion, Ethics and Leadership are well served within the Citizenship and Social Values category," he said.

One course or many

Philosophy professor Galvin is TCU's foremost expert in the academic discipline of ethics. Students in his Intro to Philosophy course get a heavy dose of ideas from the ancient world along with contemporary ethical theories.

Galvin starts with the three most commonly held belief systems -- divine command theory, moral relativism and ethical egoism. He figures that 90-95 percent of students follow one of them.

"I try to convince them that none of those views has a prayer of being right, that they're all completely false and ludicrously so," he said. "Then we go about the business of trying to answer the most important questions ethics has to answer: What is the meaning of moral judgments, and are they capable of being true or false?"

The idea is to convince students that not all moral judgments are created equal. Everyone may have a right to his own moral judgment, but no one is immune from criticism.

Upper-division philosophy classes tackle topics such as euthanasia, capital punishment, the moral status of animals, abortion, distribution of scarce resources, and terrorism and war.

It's a kind of educational spinach -- material every student should have whether he wants it or not. In fact, it should be a prerequisite to graduate, Galvin believes.

He points to the moral reasoning component in Harvard University's core as the template for all institutions attempting to require ethics in the curriculum. Said Galvin: "If indeed it is our intent to educate people to be ethical leaders, then it is incumbent on us to make studying ethics a required part of the curriculum in a rigorous way."

Nearly all faculty agree that ethics should be mandatory, and it will be in the new core, but how to go about it draws a wide range of ideas. Galvin would have every TCU student encounter Aristotle's doctrine of means, Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative and John Stuart Mill's greatest good principle in one single humanities course. Others believe that students in professional schools such as business, nursing, journalism and education could benefit more from an applied approach tailored to their field.

In fact, ethics courses already exist in journalism, nursing, religion, sociology and social work.

"The age-old question is do you teach ethics in one class or spread it across the curriculum so every class has a little bit in it? My answer is yes, you do both," said marketing professor Shannon Shipp, who teaches the Ethical Decision Making course in the Neeley School of Business. "To do one or the other is disingenuous. If you have just one course, it kind of takes the responsibility off everyone to deal with ethical issues and questions. But if you don't have a course and expect it to happen throughout the curriculum, it often doesn't happen."

The new core will accommodate both. Students will be able to satisfy the citizenship and social values requirement in traditional academic ethics or in an applied course related to a specific major.

And there may be more courses to choose from. Last fall, the Faculty Senate asked the administration for funds to offer $2,500 summer stipends to faculty members interested in professional development. Instead of teaching summer school, a professor could buy reading material or attend a conference on teaching ethics. The Senate also may sponsor on-campus seminars on implementing ethics concepts in the classroom.

"We won't all be professionally trained ethicists knowing the entire history of Western philosophy, but we all have to become more aware of some of the big principles," said the religion department's Lahutsky. "And that is something that we can do."

The business of ethics

The marketing department's Shannon Shipp and the management department's Stu Youngblood have taken the lead in teaching ethics in the M.J. Neeley School of Business. After the Neeley School's International Board of Visitors suggested it a year ago, the professors developed an ethics course for all business majors, with Shipp teaching undergraduates and Youngblood adapting a current upper-division course for upper-class and graduate students.

Both knew that the key to teaching ethics was to avoid preaching. Instead of Sunday School-style moralizing, they would weave ethical questions and considerations into traditional strategic thinking to draw students in.

"After taking either of these classes, students are going to have an awareness of ethical issues they are likely to encounter and have multiple approaches to making decisions," Youngblood said. "What the classes won't do is give students the TCU answer or even the so-called 'right' answer."

Last fall, Shipp tested his Ethical Decision Making class by trying out guest speakers and lecture material. The course -- a mix of traditional academic ethics (utilitarianism, virtue ethics, rights-based ethics, relativism) and current events -- culminated in a research project requiring an analysis of a company that has faced an ethical dilemma recently. In August, the course will be required for all sophomore business majors.

The marketing professors have encouraged their Neeley colleagues to use ethical content in their courses. "After students take my class, they'll be able to use the ethical frameworks they learn in almost any other course offered in the Neeley School," Shipp said. "A professor can say, 'I want you to use the Nash 12-question Framework' and expect them to know what it is and how to respond. So this reduces pressure on professors but keeps them involved in ethics material."

One misconception Youngblood dismisses is that studying ethics forces students to act in an ethical fashion. "There is a big difference between knowing about something intellectually and acting that way," he said. "Action comes from individual choice, integrity and self-responsibility.

"People from outside the business school say, 'Oh, the business school is teaching ethics, so everybody graduating is going to act in an ethical fashion every time they're faced with the choice of ethical and unethical.' I don't make any such claim."

Shipp and Youngblood teach a consequential approach. Students first learn to be aware of ethical dilemmas. Then they use frameworks and theories to solve the problem, keeping in mind possible negative outcomes. "Basically, we will think about it in terms of how to make decisions, not what decisions should we make," Shipp said.

The last step is a normative question: What action should one take? Again, students are urged to fall back on rules and frameworks. "I won't tell them what action to take," Shipp said, "but I will tell them to think about the potential consequences."

The big idea is that decisions are not just business ones. Business life and the rest of life are intertwined. If one cheats in class, why wouldn't one cheat on a tax return?

"It's a pervasive thing, affecting your whole life," Shipp said. "At the end of my first class, a student raised his hand and said, 'If I learned one thing, it's that this is not a class on how to act in a business setting. This is a class about how to live a good life.' "

Exploring values on their own terms

Each year, almost 1,000 students invest an hour a week in noncredit courses to explore their own values at the Leadership Center, which has increased its offerings to 10 classes this year.

"College students are inundated with information. How they process it is important," said center director Cyndi Walsh. "Now that they're not at home, they often need help in thinking about situations critically and learning the processes to make decisions. We want to expand their minds by providing information, but we also want to influence behavior so that they can take action, in a way that fits within their own values."

Each class is taught by a faculty sponsor who acts as a resource, but two upper-class students help lead much of the discussion. Classes include guest speakers, video clips and reading assignments -- all of which really get the dialogue going.

"When you say ethics and get into the theoretical, students don't get terribly excited," Walsh said. "But when it comes to personal decision-making and what's the right thing to do, they become very interested. Our hope is to complement and supplement what the academic side is already doing and provide some experiential programming."

"Foundations of Leadership" is the first class and is the only prerequisite in the program. From there, many students, mostly freshmen and transfer students, take "Connections" which tackles transition issues. It is personal and situation-based. What if a roommate is cheating on his class assignments? Should I tell someone? If so, who? And how?

Said Walsh: "They have to deal with these conundrums that they may not have faced before or they faced with a family support group to guide them through the process. Now they are out on their own. How do they make decisions based on life experiences?"

Other classes can be taken each semester as students want. In "Ethical Leadership," they touch on ethical theory, processes of assigning values and more complex situational questions.

"How do you go about making a decision? What process do you use?" asks Marcy Paul, who taught the course last semester. "Some students say, 'Well, because.' We turn it right around. 'Well, because why?' And that starts to break down some of the decision-making process. What things do you take into account? What are your values?"

Other courses examine social good. Students in "Community Action" participate in volunteer projects, such as helping the nonprofit Samaritan House and various outreach centers. "Global Leadership" explores cultural differences. "Responsible Citizenship" revolves around a class project chosen by students, such as recycling. "Mentors in Action" matches students with youths in junior high and high school.

The final course is the senior seminar, a capstone course that puts everything the students have learned in perspective and looks toward post-college life.

The center also regularly sends TCU students to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for conferences on ethics and moral character, and they usually return gung-ho and full of ideas, Walsh said. The latest group to attend is crafting an Ethics Week for the campus in the fall.

Other goals include developing a faculty grant program -- the center already funds six $1,000 grants to faculty interested in implementing leadership curricula within their courses -- and arranging internships. Walsh is working on a formal relationship with the Better Business Bureau.

The bottom line is that students must be able to determine their own personal bottom line. What's right for one might not be for another. "We want our students to know what their values are," said Carrie Zimmerman, who organizes freshman orientation and Frog Camps, which are often taught by Leadership Center students.

"We want them to do some personal exploration of who they are and who they want to be. Then we help them set goals to accomplish that and check to make sure they follow through."

Walsh adds, "We want them upon graduation to be able to say, 'I explored what I believe' and 'I was exposed to that issue.' Then in the real world they are prepared to act on their own values."

AT THE END of a semester, the religion department's Lahutsky knows whether her students can write an essay on Luther's theology. What she can't say for sure is if they are fair-minded. Or ethical. Or what is in their hearts.

She has had students write eloquent, thoroughly researched critical analysis papers, but they were unchanged by what they read and learned, she said.

And she has no control over that. No faculty member does.

That is the challenge -- and beauty -- of education, she said. Students can be invited into a world of discovery and urged to learn for learning's sake, but there are no guarantees that what they take from the class will affect their lives.

"It is not a chemical equation in which you put one substance with another substance and wind up with the same outcome every time," Lahutsky said. "Education is different. You have an idea and a human mind, and the human mind is so phenomenal and so varied that what goes into it is going to come out in its own way, sometimes no matter what you say."

But with his fresh eyes, Chancellor Boschini said he notices that TCU's campus is different than any other. "I've worked at many universities, and no other is having these kind of conversations. The fact that the conversations are swirling around TCU tells me that this issue is important to us. People recognize the mission statement, and what that tells me is that it is striking a chord with people.

"I think it is doing so because our society in general is calling out for ethical leaders and ethical behavior, not just in leaders but followers, too."

Ultimately, we're stuck making our own decisions and deciding how to determine what is right and wrong. Sometimes finding the answers starts with knowing how to ask the right questions.

Comment on this story at tcumagazine@tcu.edu.

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