23 deans convene for ethics conference at UST

May 13, 2014

HOUSTON — Business school deans from 23 Catholic universities gathered in Houston on March 31 for a groundbreaking business ethics conference hosted by the University of St. Thomas’s (UST) Center for Faith and Culture in collaboration with the Cameron School of Business.

Spurred by the sobering implications of the 2008 financial meltdown, and guided by Pope Benedict’s call in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate for financiers to “rediscover the genuine ethical foundation” of their work, the three-day conference was convened by the Center for Faith and Culture to explore ways to better prepare graduates from Catholic business schools for the ethical challenges they will encounter in the workplace, organizers said.

To help participants understand the severity and breadth of those challenges, and discern more effective strategies for teaching business ethics, the conference provided a rare combination of academic best-practices speakers, a review of the principles of Catholic social teaching, and insights from both business executives and industry whistleblowers.

Father Donald Nesti, director of the Center for Faith and Culture, said the center wanted to offer business deans a unique opportunity to reflect on ways to incorporate a truly holistic understanding of Catholic teaching throughout the curricula of their institutions. “How do you create the ethos of a Catholic business school — this is the issue!” Nesti said.

In a keynote address prepared by Peter Cardinal Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and delivered by his assistant, Father Michael Czerny, S.J., Czerny said core principles of human dignity, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity and stewardship must inform the decisions of business leaders so they “produce goods that are truly good, and services that truly serve.” 

Business educators, in turn, are called to form students who “lead an integrated life” of faith and work, Czerny said. In a culture that often emphasizes the notion that “ethics is costly while cutting corners is profitable,” business graduates need both the formation and tools to “speak up courageously and act as needed,” he observed.

To provide that formation, Catholic business schools need to do more than offer “a few ethics courses,” Czerny said; their curricula as a whole must be grounded in Catholic social teaching.

“Too often, ethics are applied like paint when the building is already done,” he observed. “That’s not ethics — that’s decoration.”

Catholic business schools have a distinct advantage and responsibility in teaching ethics, noted speaker Michael Naughton, director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas, Minn.

Ethical values, deeply rooted in the Church’s theological and philosophical tradition, “should pervade everything” at a Catholic business school, he said, and promote a truly “transformational” education that teaches students to approach business as a multidimensional vocation characterized by “good works, good goods, and good wealth.”

On the last day of the conference, deans convened in roundtable discussions to explore practical ways to more effectively teach business ethics in their schools based on current gaps and challenges. Business faculty need more incentives, formation and resources to convey not merely ethical principles but also their “decision-point” application, deans agreed.

Others observed that Catholic business schools must network with other departments and universities as they strive to more fully integrate and reflect Catholic social teaching and their university’s mission in their curricula. 

Curriculum game-changers such as the Vatican’s text “The Vocation of the Business Leader” and speaker Mary Gentile’s “Giving Voice to Values” program, an innovative approach developed at Harvard University that teaches students how to act on their values in the workplace, are invaluable resources in these efforts, many deans noted.

A white paper outlining the complete recommendations of the conference, as well as a call for a follow-up conference next year, will be released by the Cameron School of Business.

“Hopefully this will be the beginning of an evolution in the way that business ethics is taught,” said UST business ethics professor and conference organizer Dr. John Simms. “We cannot afford to fail — the headlines tell us the damage that is incurred when we do.”