- The Washington Times - Friday, October 11, 2002

High-profile fraud scandals at Enron and WorldCom prompted the business world to relearn a basic lesson this past spring.

Ethics matter.

College students are also getting the message. When John Drexler, a business professor at Oregon State University in Corvallis, decided to hold a one-credit class "The Enron Implosion," he expected some interest.

But not a 420-student stampede. The turnout forced Mr. Drexler to move the class to the school's largest lecture hall. Per-session attendance averaged 550 as listeners soaked up ways to analyze the wrongdoing and ways to act appropriately both on and off the job.

Buoyed, in part, by public interest in the scandals, more and more college programs are getting the message, too, and responding by integrating ethics into their lesson plans. Essays by concerned professors began appearing in the editorial pages of major newspapers.

While educators debate the best way to impart ethics to developing minds, one movement, called "ethics across the curriculum," is generating much of the discussion.

Ethics across the curriculum is an interdisciplinary approach to teaching ethics. It looks to encourage students to apply ethics in everyday situations and emphasizes that ethics come into play in all aspects of life.

Elaine Englehardt, a philosophy professor at Utah Valley State College in Orem, first started the movement more than 15 years ago. What sprouted as one professor's initiative has blossomed into a national phenomenon.

"It's a grass-roots movement that has caught the eye of [college and university] administrators," says Wade Robison, an engineering-ethics professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology and founder of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum.

The society, which started in the late '90s, has more than 500 members, according to Mrs. Englehardt. In the last four years, attendance at its conferences nearly quadrupled, and the most recent conference in Gainesville, Fla., drew people from as far away as Australia. Schools ranged from major universities to tiny liberal arts colleges.

Mr. Robison's interest in applied ethics germinated more than a decade ago when a friend asked him for advice. After listening to a lecture on ethical theory, the friend told him: "This isn't helpful. Why are you telling me about [Immanuel] Kant?" Kant was an 18th-century German philosopher.

Mr. Robison started looking for ways to apply ethics to practical situations.

"I found myself without any resources and with no place to turn," he says.

Eventually, he begged and cajoled his way into a class for RIT's senior engineering students. Armed with a basic understanding of the subject, he began teaching ethics to engineering students.

No university has yet completely adopted an ethics-across-the-curriculum approach, which Mr. Robison chalks up to institutional politics.

But professors such as Mr. Drexler are increasingly bringing ethics into the classroom anyway. Despite the popularity of his Enron class, Mr. Drexler says that integrating ethics instruction into the curriculum is preferable to what some call "ghettoizing" ethics in stand-alone courses.

By roping ethics off in one or two classes students are subtly encouraged to think that ethics are limited in application, says Dan Wueste, interim director of the Clemson University Ethics Center in Greenville, S.C.

To combat this, some schools are developing discipline-specific courses such as engineering ethics and business ethics. Others require all students to take a generic ethics course regardless of their major.

A third option, and one Mrs. Englehardt employs, is to weave ethics instruction into all classroom discussion.

"I try to get students to pull up their ethics by the roots and examine those roots," she says.

In her philosophy classes, Mrs. Englehardt uses the daily newspaper to bring theory to life.

Students look forward to the discussions, she says, and some bring their own moral conundrums to class. One car-repair student was directed by his boss to ignore a hole in a car's exhaust system. The customer only wanted cosmetic work done so he could sell the car quickly. Alarmed, the student discussed his problem with the class and decided to fix the leak on his own time. He angered his boss, but kept his job.

"Our society gives us hedge room to tell lies," Mrs. Englehardt says. "But Kant says a lie is a lie is a lie."

UVSC in Orem also includes an ethics course in its core requirements. More than 50,000 students have taken the class in the past 17 years.

Until recently, the climate in academia hasn't favored ethics instruction. One exception is the University of Maryland, which has long required its MBA students to visit a federal prison.

"It's like apple pie," Mr. Robison says. "Everybody's in favor of it, but they don't want any right now. A lot of people don't see the relevance."

Ethics, he says, have long been seen as values- or opinion-based, a philosophical pursuit that had nothing to do with "hard" science, which is fact-based.

"Most engineering textbooks have one chapter on ethics," Mr. Robison says. "It's about four to eight pages long, it's at the back of the book, and they never get to it."

All this has changed since the investigations of not only Enron and Worldcom, but lesser-known entities such as Tyco, Global Crossing, Halliburton and ImClone.

Mr. Wueste calls the distinction between opinion and hard science "wrongheaded" and points to "the widespread but misguided embrace of relativism" as the reason many schools have dropped the ethical ball. Hard-science research attracts more funding for universities, he says, adding that faculty members are often not sure of exactly how to introduce ethical discussions into their classes in a realistic and substantive way.

"Presenting ethical problems in a way that forces students to think carefully about the positions they hold and why they hold them," he says, "as opposed to merely defending prior opinions without much thought, is a challenge."

Professors also complain of insufficient time for more than one or two class periods devoted to ethics, Mr. Robison says, and academic specialization increasingly isolates scholars from different disciplines.

Despite such built-in resistance, he says the ethics movement is gathering steam. New professional standards for engineering and accounting now require schools to teach ethics, and a new generation of incoming professors understand its importance.

"These are people who grew up with the Challenger disaster," he says, referring to the space shuttle that exploded shortly after liftoff in 1986 because of a leaky fuel seal. An investigation later revealed that the seal was poorly designed and insufficiently tested.

A parade of handcuffed CEOs always helps, too.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide