UI delivering experience dealing with ethical dilemmas

UI delivering experience dealing with ethical dilemmas

CHAMPAIGN – It isn't polite to stuff a sock in your guest speaker's mouth. But Gretchen Winter must have been sorely tempted to do so last week.

Last week, a guest speaker whom her center helped bring to campus – Harry Markopolos – was asked his opinion of college ethics training.

"A big waste of time," Markopolos said. "You can't teach ethics."

Markopolos, a fraud investigator who repeatedly tried to warn the Securities and Exchange Commission that something stunk in Bernard Madoff's investment operation, said his own ethics were more influenced by role models, such as military officers he served with, and "strong truths well lived."

Winter, whose center works to imbue University of Illinois business students with ethical thinking, said she sees some truth in his thinking.

"I don't know that I'd say it's a waste of time, but expecting students to take one mandatory course called ethics, and somehow thinking it will inform their decision-making and give them the experience they need to act differently in the real world, is fantasy," she said. "It's not going to be effective."

Ethical dilemmas don't land on your desk in the morning with a sign reading, "I'm a dilemma. Solve me using the ethics training you had in your second year of college," Winter said.

But regular exposure to ethical problems and considering how you should solve them can help, she added.

"We think the more exposure and experience you have to professional-responsibility dilemmas while in college, the more effective you'll be in identifying dilemmas when out in the real world," she said.

Some UI students already have practice in that.

Three UI seniors – accountancy major Jonathan Kepniss, finance major Victoria Ku and economics major Michael Greenspan – claimed an award in Ernst & Young's "90-Second Ethics Challenge" at Loyola Marymount University last month.

They had to prepare an argument about a business problem with an ethical dimension. They chose to focus on Bank Leumi, a bank in Israel that received money from European Jews before World War II. Some depositors became war victims and never made it to Israel, and the deposits weren't claimed.

The team wondered: What's the bank's ethical responsibility in handling those deposits?

That kind of thinking is promoted by the UI's Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society, which Winter directs.

The center was founded in 2006 as the result of a $4 million grant from the Deloitte Foundation and a $4 million award from a U.S. District Court case.

Winter, an attorney who worked 18 years at Baxter International – 11 of them as a vice president responsible for ethics and compliance – was named the center's executive director in November 2007.

She works from the UI's Chicago campus, but comes down to the Urbana-Champaign campus about once a week, she said.

One of the center's first projects was to develop a "Business 101" course for all incoming freshmen in the College of Business, with training in ethics, people skills and social awareness.

The course was offered to a small group of students two years ago and to half the incoming business students last fall. It will be rolled out for all incoming freshmen at the college this fall.

Winter said the course's first module concentrates on students' professional responsibilities – how they present themselves to companies they interview with and how they represent themselves on resumes.

The second module focuses on the students as individuals: their personal values, who might be suitable role models, what companies have corporate values that match their own.

The third module makes them think about others. It introduces them to subsistence marketplaces and poverty simulations. It helps them realize, Winter said, that the world is "not made up of people just like they are."

The center's other projects include collaborating on production of an educational DVD, developing an ethics course for medical students and coordinating a conference in Chicago that will focus on the global economic crisis.

Winter said the Deloitte Foundation is providing the center with $4 million over eight years.

"Money is put into an endowment, and we're primarily operating off the interest," she said. "We're extraordinarily fortunate to have this money provided and committed."

She said she's pleased with the training being put in place for students.

"We introduce them to the concept of personal responsibility while freshmen, and we'll be reinforcing that concept in all the other courses they'll be taking," she said. "By the time they graduate, they'll be students who have a good feeling and understanding of their own value set, and they'll apply that in whatever profession they'll be a part of."

Conference on economic crisis among center projects

CHAMPAIGN – A national conference to explore the world economic crisis is among the projects being planned by the University of Illinois Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society.

Gretchen Winter, the center's director, said the conference, expected to be held in Chicago this fall, will bring together experts from the UI College of Business, other universities and private enterprise to examine the causes of the crisis and explore policy solutions.

"We've seen a huge collapse of institutions, organizations and government agencies that were supposed to be exercising some level of oversight," Winter said. "So we need to find out what went wrong, what can be done to fix it and how to keep it from happening again."

Winter said the center's mission of emphasizing professional responsibility fits with President Barack Obama's call for a new era of responsibility.

"We kept landing on a conference as the answer, looking at what happened so we don't repeat it and how regulation should work compared to how it did work," she said.

Among other projects undertaken by the center:

– Collaborating on an instructional DVD that teaches auditor independence. More than a dozen professors across the country and abroad have registered to use it.

The material was developed by Deloitte & Touche, with UI accounting Professor Ira Solomon appearing in the 27-minute-long video and UI accounting Professor Mark Peecher providing academic support for accompanying case studies.

– Working with the UI College of Medicine to create a continuing education course for doctors and other health care providers.

The course promotes professional responsibility and transparency with patients in cases involving medical error. It encourages doctors to respond honestly when mistakes are made rather than staking out a legal defense.

So far, it has been offered to medical students as an elective, but Winter said its potential uses include continuing education. Dr. Anne Gunderson was principal investigator for the course.

As director, Winter is the center's only staff member, but it does have an 11-member advisory board and a seven-member faculty advisory committee. Ruth Aguilera, a UI associate professor of business administration, has been named a center fellow.


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