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Revitalize ethics


In 2004, shaken by one of the most scandal-ridden periods in American history, I co-wrote a book titled “The Transparent Leader.” We championed doing the right thing as a way of building an ethical foundation for business. As CEO of Dial Corp., I felt it necessary to fight against ravages that included the Enron and Tyco scandals, and a climate in which “business leader” had become a synonym for “cheater.”

Today, things are far worse.

From the subprime mortgage meltdown to the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, from indicted and shamed athletes to indicted and shamed clergy, we are seeing a near-total ethical collapse in almost every institution.

A Gallup Poll last July found that no institution inspires “a great deal of confidence” from a majority of Americans. Our nation cannot survive such cynicism over a prolonged period.

How, then, to change it?

A long-term crisis of this nature requires a long-term solution: Reshape the basic beliefs of future leaders, so they embrace the tenet that has distinguished America since its creation, namely that honesty, credibility and transparency will beget innovation, achievement and confidence.

Our colleges and universities should serve as centers of ethical excellence, in much the same way that they originated as oases of knowledge during the Dark Ages. College provides a prime opportunity to focus on ethics as students broaden their horizons, set new goals and prepare for meaningful careers and personal lives.

You can find ethics courses at many fine colleges and universities. But too many of those courses are simply situational: “How would you handle …?” What’s needed are all-encompassing programs designed to reform our underlying mores and ethics.

That is the impetus behind the $2 million contribution my wife, Karen, and I recently made to create an endowed Chair of Ethics and the Professions at my alma mater, Drake University. It was at Drake, with its commitment to traditional Midwestern values, that this Chicago native learned to appreciate how earnestness, dedication and hard work will bring financial success and personal satisfaction.

I’m confident that Professor of Public Administration Garry Frank, installed as the inaugural Chair of Ethics and the Professions, will bring emphasis to ethics themes across Drake’s colleges and schools. Plus, he will host an annual symposium on ethics and the professions and interact with local businesses and other organizations to promote ethics and values.

I am confident this great university can serve as the springboard for a movement that can help turn our country in the right direction. I look forward with anticipation to an opportunity to write a sequel, recounting how Americans rose to this challenge with a helping hand from our universities.

Herb Baum is a retired CEO of Dial Corp. and serves on the Drake University board of trustees.

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