Ethical Leadership Conference Shines a Light on Higher Education

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Today’s students are tomorrow’s employees. Businesses have good reason to want institutes of higher education to promote ethics.

As each new story of a high-profile company grappling with bribery and corruption scandals, workplace misconduct and potential FCPA exposure breaks, it’s becoming more and more evident that the business world is becoming less and less ethical. In this environment, a conference on ethical leadership is well-placed, especially when it has a focus on ethics in higher education.

At the 2012 Ethical Leadership Conference at Rutgers Business School last week, some of the brightest speakers on ethics presented their thoughts on how to connect with tomorrow’s workforce today, to instill in them a culture of ethics.

Ethics in Higher Education Lacking

“We did some research through a survey that demonstrated that in the field of higher education the focus on ethics, building an ethical culture and being response-ready when you’re challenged was not really formed,” says Alex Plinio, Co-founder of the Rutgers Institute for Ethical Leadership.

“I would say that higher education is about 20 years behind what business does, and you know all the challenges that business has in this area,” he adds. “And now in the last several years, many more of these ethical challenges have surfaced, and are in the media, with higher education.”

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He cites a study by the Aspen Institute that found that during the two years of an MBA program, the perspective of most students shifts from customer needs and product quality to shareholder value as a measure of business success. It’s a disturbing trend.

Clearly there is a need for a more focused effort to instill ethics in students, but also in the institutions that are educating them, as we have seen at Penn State and the University of Arkansas. It’s another version of tone from the top, and if today’s university environment gives us any indication, it’s that things aren’t improving.

The Business-Education Link

Plinio sees a linkage between business and higher education as a move in the right direction, and the Ethical Leadership Conference at Rutgers as a first step.

“We first need to raise the discourse and discussion in higher education,” he says. “We need to link it with business… to see how business can help higher education, and maybe even vice versa, because business is the recipient of the products of higher education. So this is our first attempt to do that.”

The conference sessions included addresses by an impressive lineup of speakers, including Anthony Marx, President of the NY Public Library and Michelle Lee, President, Northwest Region, Wells Fargo, who talked about the tough ethics challenges they’ve faced and the importance of ethical leadership.

A panel on day one discussed the leader’s role in building an ethical culture and the second day saw panelists discussing the lessons they’ve learned in their sectors. Panelists included Ed Henry, President and CEO of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, Mary Gentile, Director of Giving Voice to Values, and the Dean of Rutgers, John Farmer, among others. The high quality of discussions was matched by the depth of comments and questions from the attendees.

What’s Next?

And as a takeaway, the Institute has compiled a useful bibliography for further research, including articles about higher education, research on higher education, surveys of teenagers and the general public and surveys of cheating in higher education.

The Institute’s hope, says Plinio, is that the conference will be “the spark to ignite a fire that would get institutions and organizations together to keep the discussion going and the focus to create the kind of change that’s necessary inside institutions that make their cultures and leaders more ethical.”

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Article Published May 9, 2012

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