Remington Ziems, a junior marketing and economics major at the University of Portland, chats with Naveen Gudigantala, a professor of business. Gudigantala says the school takes pride in creating ethical leaders.
Remington Ziems, a junior marketing and economics major at the University of Portland, chats with Naveen Gudigantala, a professor of business. Gudigantala says the school takes pride in creating ethical leaders.
In “Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis called business “a noble vocation,” provided that businesspeople look beyond the bottom line to the common good. There’s nothing wrong with increasing goods in the world, the pope wrote, so long as we also make those goods more accessible to everyone.

At University of Portland, ethics have become fuel in the education engine room, and no more so than in the Pamplin School of Business.

“We all want people to become better, to help everyone become the best version of themselves,” says Dan McGinty, director of the University’s Dundon-Berchtold Institute, which guides classes, public events and research on ethics across all disciplines.

Holy Cross Father Mark Poorman, president of the university, is a scholar who has long focused on moral character. His passion has infused academic life, faculty say.

Each year, 30 students are invited to participate in the Character Project, a weekly class in which students engage in guided discussions on how personal value systems and beliefs can influence moral character. Father Poorman is one of the teachers.

In addition, professors across the university are supported when they team up with students on ethics research.

“We take pride in creating ethical leaders,” says Naveen Gudigantala, a professor of business at the university, which has about 800 business majors.

“Companies are under pressure to perform,” Gudigantala says. “Sometimes they resort to unethical practices. We want students to know that and not to face this for the first time when they get out in the work world. We want them to see what are other options under pressure.”

Gudigantala worked with students who were curious about the ethics of “gray” markets, which bypass local supply chains. For example, is it right for a U.S. distributor to sell products to Indian buyers when Indian suppliers would customarily make the sale? Should tech companies buy raw materials from nations run by warlords?

Many buyers don’t even know they are hurting businesses along the supply chain or supporting corrupt regimes, Gudigantala tells students. Amazon, as it has allowed consumers to bypass local businesses, has made this a hot topic.

Gudigantala says such lessons will make students better employees and better consumer advocates.

Ellen Lippman, another business professor, worked with a student who wanted to examine the ethics of accounting during the American Civil War. The pair found that current financial whistleblower protections began during the war because of financial improprieties.

With another student, Lippman probed the effect of a business’s ethical culture on the behavior of employees, contrasting a white collar crime with instances of fraud in standardized testing at schools.

Will the research make students more ethical? That’s the big question, Lippman says.

She hopes it helps, but realizes that the students doing the projects are already interested in the moral life.

“Most people do not start out planning to be unethical in business,” she explains. “There are countless stories of good people doing bad. Often, when the problems start, employees may believe they are working in the interests of the company. And, often what they do initially is quite small. It is what I call ‘gradual incrementalism,’ how good people start doing bad for the benefit of the company. Unfortunately, often it is difficult to stop.”  

Ryan Gillespie, U.P.’s 2014 valedictorian, graduated with a business degree and now is an accountant in Manhattan. He says the school’s ethics focus made a difference for him.

“We learned what is the right way to do things,” says Gillespie, who as a student helped St. Andrew Nativity School in Portland work on a plan for getting through life as a non-profit. “We as human beings have responsibilities to each other.”

The ethics programs are good, but the day-to-day personal interactions with ethical priests, faculty and fellow students are even more powerful, Gillespie says.  

“That helps you when you hit an issue,” he explains. “It helps you reason through situations.”

Business leaders can be unethical in thousands of ways other than embezzlement.

They may use a foreign manufacturer to produce a product where local laws permit ecological damage or child labor. They may tally revenue too early, falsely inflating the financial statement and increasing stock price.   

“You can find yourself in certain situations where you don’t just call it a business decision, but you realize it has ethics involved,” says Seamus O’Connor, a 2003 U.P. graduate who oversees ethics compliance for ESCO Corporation, which designs and manufactures mining and industrial gear.

Through U.P. programs, he returns to his alma mater on occasion to serve as a mentor to current students and reconnect with other alumni trying to do business right.

Gwynn Klobes, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Scappoose, teaches U.P. students how to write resumes and other practical measures, but also how to develop ethical habits. A 20-year veteran at U.P., Klobes recalls how the urge for ethics surged after the Enron scandals of 2001.

She assists students as they write a life plan that incorporates their vision and values.

“We are helping form this person not just theoretically in classes, but in their formation as a human being,” says Klobes, who holds degrees in both business and theology. “We don’t want you to have a career, we want you to have a vocation. A career is about you. A vocation is about you in the community.”

edl@catholicsentinel.org