Ethics 101: Higher Education’s Role in Creating a More Socially Responsible and Sustainable World

Artwork with face that has justice scales as eyes

By Ed Brennen

Are you an ethical person?

If you’re like most people, you answered in the affirmative. But how did you learn to become honest, respectful and responsible? When did you discover the importance of loyalty, integrity and selflessness?

Most of us learn these defining characteristics of personal ethics as kids. Our parents teach us to share our toys, to be on time, to fess up to the broken window. We watch how our teachers, coaches and clergy behave. And if we pay attention to the news, we see what happens when people fail to act ethically (hello, Theranos, Volkswagen and Bernie Madoff).

So it stands to reason that by the time students arrive at UMass Lowell, they should have a firm grasp on their personal ethics. They don’t have to be taught at orientation why it’s wrong to cheat on a test or plagiarize a paper. Their resident advisor doesn’t have to explain that their roommate’s iPhone doesn’t belong to them. Students typically understand right from wrong, and they’re fully aware of the consequences for breaking the accepted rules of society.

Why, then, do colleges and universities teach ethics to students? Why does UML offer more than 100 courses —i n fields ranging from business and health care to computer science and literature — that address social responsibility and ethics, one of seven essential learning outcomes of the university’s core curriculum?

“You can’t teach college students ethics. They’re grownups; they have their ethics,” says Asst. Teaching Prof. of Management Elissa Magnant, who nevertheless teaches a required course on business ethics to Manning School of Business students.

She can explain.

“It’s not a didactic ‘You should do this’ course,” she says. “It’s a ‘Think about ethics with every decision you make’ course. Think about the impact on your stakeholders. You can’t have a crystal ball for every decision you make, but you can collect as much information as you can and communicate as well as you can to try to make the best decision you can.”

Magnant, a former bankruptcy attorney, spends a lot of time thinking about ethics. She and Assoc. Prof. of Management Erica Steckler are co-directors of UML’s Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.

Nancy Donahue
Nancy Donahue
Established in 2016 thanks to a $1 million gift from Lowell philanthropist Nancy Donahue ’13 (H) and her late husband Richard, the center’s mission is to promote the value of “doing well by doing good” by advancing initiatives and programs that support student learning, faculty teaching and research.

“Ethics influence literally everything, from small, everyday business decisions to global strategy,” Steckler says. “Our objective is to help students from all disciplines understand the ethical dimensions they’re faced with on a daily basis — in particular, in the organizations they’re going to be part of and ultimately lead.”

Donahue says she felt compelled to fund the center after noticing an erosion of “ethics and morals, civility and respect” in the world.

“I look at the halls of Congress and I am appalled by what I see. I’m very concerned about the future,” Donahue said while visiting campus this spring to make a $2 million gift to renovate Durgin Concert Hall. “I’m hoping that young people in college will get a grounding and learn how important ethics are in business, medicine, law, engineering — whatever field it is they are pursuing.”

As students pursue their chosen fields, they find themselves in very challenging times, weighing successful and lucrative careers (doing well) against trying to be principled (doing good). They face not only the effects of climate change and a global pandemic, but also the need for social justice and improved diversity, equity and inclusion.

Throw in hyperpolarized politics and an unpredictable economy full of unregulated cryptocurrencies, and it’s clear that ethics are more relevant than ever, according to Magnant.

“It’s relentless,” she says of the Gen Z zeitgeist. “Even though it might seem exhausting, students are open to the considerations of right and wrong. They’re thinking about ethics every day.”

For business major Adam Basma ’22, the Business Ethics course made him realize that he wants to work for a company that “prides itself on the positivity” of an inclusive and diverse work environment.

“I started looking at companies that are leveraging data and the digital future for good, which is something I never would have thought about before,” says Basma, a native of Shirley, Massachusetts, who started a sales development job with B2B marketing technology firm Zoominfo shortly after graduation. “I’m seeing that social entrepreneurship — thinking about corporate social responsibility and the number of people you can save — is more important than how much money you make. The money will follow if all those other things come to fruition.”

‘Make a Positive Ripple in the World’

Ethics are important to students, but also to the companies that hire them. Many companies now highlight their corporate social responsibility (CSR) on their websites, detailing their commitment to employees, consumers, communities and the environment. And investors, including asset management giants BlackRock, State Street and The Vanguard Group, are holding businesses accountable by factoring environmental, social and governance (ESG) outcomes into their financial analyses.

“If a company isn’t able to say what their CSR is, or what impact they’re having on their community or their stakeholders, there’s no purpose for the business to even exist,” says Carly Burson ’05, founder and CEO of LAUDE the Label, a socially conscious company that provides living wages for at-risk women in exchange for their sustainable, artisanal apparel and accessories. “The marketplace is demanding more, and if companies don’t start to get on board with what the expectation is, especially from Gen Z, they’re not going to be around forever.”

From her vantage point as a professor and Donahue Center co-director, Steckler finds that students are keenly aware of companies’ commitments to things like sustainability, inclusivity, diversity and community.

“They genuinely want to make a positive ripple in the world,” she says. “They care about values alignment with the companies they work for. It’s a really big deal and the foundation of social responsibility.”

Business alumna Meaghan O’Brien ’21, ’22 is a good example. After working as a research assistant for the Donahue Center and taking a deeper look at her personal ethics as a student, the Dracut, Massachusetts, native landed a job as director of procurement and compliance for the Lowell Regional Transit Authority. The role allows her to make a positive impact on the lives of those who rely on public transportation, while also helping the environment.

“I’m very lucky that my first opportunity for employment has been something that really aligns with my values,” O’Brien says. “A lot of people my age are starting to think like that now: How can we improve ourselves and take care of the community, and maybe reverse some of the damage that’s been done with global warming?”

Helping Students Grow Up — No Matter Their Major

The Donahue Center is fulfilling its benefactor’s vision in a number of ways. It hosts a Distinguished Speaker Series, sponsors student participation in case competitions, awards research grants and even started a book club. Last fall, the center hosted UML’s inaugural “Ethics Fest” at University Crossing, where more than 250 students discovered how ethics and social responsibility intersect with their everyday lives — often in unexpected ways.

At one end of Moloney Hall, Assoc. Prof. of Philosophy Nicholas Evans got students thinking about the ethical implications of proposed technology that would allow the implanting of computer chips in the brains of soldiers in the U.S. military. At the other end of the room, Assoc. Director of Disability Services Brandon Drake explained the concept of “universal design” — the process of creating products that are accessible to people with a wide range of abilities — by asking students to consider how they interact with things like the apps on their phones, door handles and sinks.

At 19 other “engagement stations” across the room, faculty researchers, Campus Center staff members and student groups explored the ethics of everything from interviewing for a job and using proper pronouns to “leave no trace” camping and ESG disclosure issues in accounting.

While the Philosophy Department on South Campus teaches the most ethics-related courses at UML, Evans says that with the Donahue Center on North Campus, events like Ethics Fest can help bridge both the disciplinary and geographical divides.

“It’s nice to be part of the larger social responsibility community here on campus,” said Evans, an expert in public health ethics whose work ranges from the pandemic to autonomous vehicles.

Former Philosophy Department Chair John Kaag agrees. When introducing novelist James Carroll ’03 (H) for the Donahue Center’s Distinguished Speaker Series, he praised the “cross-college cooperation from different departments — philosophy, psychology, sociology, business.” He also addressed the challenge of teaching ethics to students, with a nod to Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics.”

“(Aristotle) says the problem with teaching ethics to young people is that they don’t necessarily have the ears for the lessons,” Kaag said. “This is a great paradox, because those youngsters who don’t have ears for the lessons are the people who might actually reform their lives still.

So the trick to philosophy … is to grow up prematurely.”

Small Decisions Add Up

Although he didn’t get to take advantage of the Donahue Center as a student, accounting alum Craig Brown ’00 has had ears for ethics lessons throughout his career. In his first job out of college, as an audit manager at Deloitte, he remembers sitting in a room with 60 or so other new hires on the first day, reading the firm’s code of conduct and other materials on ethical behavior. At the time, Brown says he thought it was merely a “check-the-box” exercise, something to get out of the way before moving on to more important stuff.

“Fortunately for me, those early lessons arose often in my daily work interactions, both in public accounting and investment management, and I could begin to see how intricately woven the ideals of fairness, integrity and respect really were,” says Brown, now a vice president at Fidelity Investments. “I was being asked to leverage my internal barometer when assessing the differences between right and wrong, realizing through these interactions and instructional moments that those lesser decisions, when aggregated, carry just as much significance and consequence as the larger ones.”

Because the unethical actions of just a few can lead to scandals and financial crises that erode public trust and cast shadows over entire industries, Brown says it’s critical for organizations to constantly nurture their ethical culture.

“Ethics is not a message carried by few, or only taught in classrooms or training centers,” he says. “It’s an approach that needs to permeate all levels of business.”

That’s the approach that Chancellor Emerita Jacquie Moloney hopes is part of her legacy at UML. As she addressed students at Ethics Fest last fall, she spoke of the university’s commitment to social justice, inclusion and sustainability.

“Students demand that we as a university also hold ourselves accountable, and I believe we have done that,” she said. “You have a voice here, and as you graduate from this university, you will have a voice in your companies. You will have an authoritative voice at the table.”