In Busy First Year, Center’s Support for Ethics and Social Responsibility Carries Across Campus

Donahue Center co-directors Elissa Magnant and Erica Steckler Image by Ed Brennen
Donahue Center for Business Ethics & Social Responsibility Co-Directors Elissa Magnant, left, and Erica Steckler support ethics-related education and research across campus.

By Ed Brennen

In any career that students pursue – nursing, computer science, accounting, mechanical engineering, teaching, you name it – they will face ethical dilemmas.

Which is why the Donahue Center for Business Ethics & Social Responsibility supports students and faculty across every discipline at the university. Yes, the word “business” is in its name. And yes, its home address is at the Manning School of Business. But the Donahue Center has a much broader vision of expanding ethics-related education and research to all majors.

“Ethics are a part of everyone’s careers, and social responsibility is a core value of many of our students,” says Donahue Center Co-Director Erica Steckler, an assistant professor of management in the Manning School. “So we are focused on building an interdisciplinary center that supports the teaching and curriculum across campus.”

Now in its second year, the center is named after philanthropist Nancy Donahue and her late husband Richard, whose $1 million gift to the university in 2016 made the center a reality.

“Not only will it help us in our future professions, but it will also give us a solid set of values and morals to guide us through our personal lives.” -Sophomore business major Nicole Mackie

“The Donahue family has been a social force for transforming the city of Lowell into what it is today, and that goes along with what UMass Lowell has become,” says Steckler, who was named the center’s co-director along with visiting instructor Elissa Magnant last November.

Since then, they have been busy on many fronts. In addition to surveying faculty to learn how the center can support their diverse curricular and research needs, they have provided students with opportunities to participate in case study competitions and leadership training.

After sending a team of five business students to this year’s International Business Ethics Case Competition (IBECC) in Boston, Steckler and Magnant are now introducing a university-wide ethics case competition, similar to what DifferenceMakers does for entrepreneurship. The team that wins the UML competition, slated for Feb. 25, will advanced to the national competition, which will be held in April in Los Angeles.

The Donahue Center has also helped more than a dozen students complete the Ethical Leadership Certification Program, a series of online courses offered by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA) Center for the Public Trust. Students earn digital badges for their résumés that show competencies in ethical leadership and management.

Student Meaghan O’Brien stands in front of her research poster Image by courtesy
Business student Meaghan O’Brien presents her comparative market analysis of ethics centers at the Student Research & Community Engagement Symposium.

“We want to establish a repository of information,” says Magnant, who teaches a business ethics course and served as the IBECC team’s adviser last spring.

An attorney by trade, Magnant says she was drawn to the field of business ethics by an unfortunate personal experience. Magnant and her husband used to run a scientific distribution company, and she says they were defrauded out of “quite a bit of money.”

“Having gone through that, and having run my own law office, gave me a lot of experience with issues where I thought about how doing business could be done well,” says Magnant, who recently received an Exceeding Excellence in Teaching award from the Student Government Association.

Steckler, meanwhile, says one of the biggest reasons she came to UML was the potential of starting an ethics center here.

“This is very much in my wheelhouse as far as content research and interest,” says Steckler, who is the founding president of the U.S. Humanistic Management Association and was a postdoctoral visiting research scholar at Bentley University's Hoffman Center for Business Ethics. “Being part of the Donahue Center, especially in the startup stage, is so exciting.”

As a startup, the co-directors have given several students hands-on experience to help get the center up and running.

Author James Carroll speaks with a student Image by Ed Brennen
Author James Carroll chats with a student while on campus last spring for the Donahue Center's Distinguished Speaker Series.

Last spring, for her research project for the Business & Entrepreneur Scholars in Training (BEST) program, then-freshman Meaghan O’Brien did a comparative market analysis of existing ethics centers. O’Brien’s work, which she presented at the Student Research & Community Engagement Symposium, is being used to shape the center’s social media and communications strategies.

The student responsible for carrying out those strategies is sophomore business administration major Nicole Mackie, who works part-time as the center’s administrative assistant. Mackie says the center’s work can help students in many ways.

“Any single managerial decision can completely change the reputation of a company, so it’s extremely important for students to study ethics in order to avoid morally wrong decision-making,” says Mackie, whose concentrations are in marketing and finance. “Not only will it help us in our future professions, but it will also give us a solid set of values and morals to guide us through our personal lives.”

For its kickoff event a year ago, the Donahue Center hosted a red-carpet screening of a Market Basket documentary that drew more than 200 UML community members to University Crossing. Ever since, gaining exposure for the Donahue Center has been a top priority for the co-directors.

Steckler has represented the Donahue Center at conferences in New York and Chicago, and the center has also partnered with the International Humanistic Management Association (IHMA) to offer faculty members monthly webinars with leading scholars. Locally, they’ve taken part in a workforce training seminar and participated on panels at the university’s annual Women’s Leadership Conference and a student-driven seminar on sexual harassment and workplace conduct.

Prof. Jack Wilson speaks at University Crossing Image by Ed Brennen
UMass President Emeritus Jack Wilson talks about ethical leadership during this semester's Distinguished Speaker Series.

“The broader our network goes, the better it is for UMass Lowell and our students,” says Magnant.

The Donahue Center also started a Distinguished Speaker Series, which has featured author James Carroll and UMass President Emeritus and Distinguished University Professor Jack Wilson.

At the Carroll event, Prof. John Kaag, chair of the Philosophy Department, introduced the best-selling author and historian by referencing Aristotle’s best-known work, the “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 are the people who might actually reform their lives still.”

The Donahue Center is working to help the young people at UMass Lowell develop those ears.

“These topics resonate powerfully with students, and they’re important to our faculty,” Steckler says. “I think our students have a chance to apply this awareness and knowledge, and go out and make a real difference in the world.”