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Notre Dame should lead – not lag – on Oaths

Terrence Keeley | Monday, November 8, 2010

“Catholic” derives from the Greek word katholikos, which means “universal.” In “Caritas in Veritate,” Pope Benedict XVI states the Church has “a mission of truth to accomplish,” and “proclaims this truth tirelessly, recognizing it wherever it is manifested.” Speaking of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Paul VI wrote of his “complete moral support for its common ideals.” In Pacem in Terris John XXIII expresses his clear wish that “the precise and juridical character” of the UN’s Universal Declaration receive support “on the level of justice and legislation, not just that of human assistance.” Catholics have a duty to work with men and women of all faiths, nationalities and political persuasions to promote universal ideals and rules in direct support of the common good.

In 2007, following a number of research scandals (including the falsification of human embryonic data and sham health studies commissioned by tobacco companies), Sir David King — the UK government’s senior scientific advisor — proposed a universal ethical code for scientists. His seven-point creed is broadly organized around the principles of responsibility, rigor and respect. A central purpose of his code is to build greater trust between society and technical research, upon which much of our progress depends. Today tens of thousands of scientists and dozens of universities have endorsed Sir David’s principles and/or adopted close variants of their own.

Similarly, in 2009, a group of MBA students from Harvard, inspired by their professors who claimed management deserved to be a recognized profession governed by a binding ethical code, crafted their own set of career-guiding principles. Their seven-point creed commits its adherents to responsible value creation at the likely expense of personal gain. More than 4,500 MBA holders have since taken this pledge from over 300 institutions. Leadership schools supporting the now-global MBA Oath initiative include Yale, Columbia, Duke, University of Chicago, Oxford, Wharton, Emory, Kellogg, UC Berkeley, MIT, University of London, Thunderbird, UCLA and NYU, in addition to Harvard.

Remarkably, Notre Dame is not among them. Indeed, of the 4,556 current MBA Oath signatories, only four are ND MBA holders or aspirants. Carolyn Woo, Dean of the Mendoza Business School, has taken a particularly strident line against the MBA Oath movement. “If Purdue wants to support it, that’s fine,” she told me. “It’s just not for Notre Dame.”

I met with Dean Woo this past August to discuss the MBA Oath and a related initiative I founded with a global group of bankers (about which, please see www.financialhippocraticoath.org). I listened as Dean Woo described why she would not let Notre Dame students be drawn into any oath-taking movements, something she clearly regards as a passing fad. “We should only take oaths on two occasions in our lives,” she informed me. “When we marry, and when we join the religious life.”

Last spring, separately, I had been invited by Scott Malpass to address his Global Portfolio Management class on the causes and consequences of the financial crisis. Quoting both Caritas and Centisimus Annus, I openly asked whether a new, voluntary code of ethics for bankers and brokers — especially those without MBA or CFA degrees — might help restore trust, just as the Holy Father implores. I issued a challenge grant to attending students consisting of three questions: 1) Would a new, inclusive “Financial Hippocratic Oath” be a useful way to rebuild trust in our financial system? 2) If so, what tenets would you include in the oath? And 3) What business plan would you deploy to make such a “Financial Hippocratic Oath” reality?

Notre Dame students responded exactly as one would expect. More than a dozen thoughtful proposals were submitted, unanimously supporting the FHO in concept. The winning essay by an outstanding Finance major student, James Pappas — The Financial Hippocratic Oath: Goals, Implementation and Enforcement — included a summary introduction to seven specific tenets, and five clear steps for implementation. A few weeks later, James came out to Notre Dame’s Annual Wall Street dinner to help promote the FHO concept to a crowd of 500 working alumni. Not surprisingly, dozens of Notre Dame financial professionals have since reached out to me, every one offering their support.

Notre Dame is now at a crossroad. Do Her students, faculty members and alumni work together to promote broad ethical movements — in science, business, finance, architecture, teaching, all professions in fact — or do they let a handful of University officials with uncontestable principles, yet opposing views, speak on Her behalf? Will Our Lady’s University leaders and students actively engage other schools and like-minded reformers in pursuit of universal behavioral codes, or will they instead restrain Notre Dame from engaging in inter-collegiate, multi-lateral initiatives? Will Notre Dame lead or lag in the growing number of well-intended oath-taking movements? If the latter, in this our era of growing doubts, how exactly will Notre Dame help restore faith and trust in our markets, our government, our scientific endeavors and our professions? Will these efforts prove sufficient? Could Notre Dame possibly do more?

Many of Sir David’s tens of thousands, the 4500-plus who have already signed onto the MBA Oath, countless numbers of boy scouts and girl scouts, most of our men and women in the military and law enforcement agencies, and millions of members of the medical profession who have promised to incorporate universal ideals such as those in the original Hippocratic oath rely upon solemn vows at important junctures in their careers. Mahatma Gandhi said “vows relating to noble causes uplift both the individual and the society in which he takes part.” We all need to connect our endeavors back into the common good, into societal advancement, if we are to know personal, professional and spiritual fulfillment. Oaths are an important divining rod and compass for the discerning when the seas get rough, as they inevitably do.

In addition to my sacred marital and solemn professional commitments, I’ve pledged to help make the University of Notre Dame the greatest institute of Catholic higher education in the world. It is for this reason alone that I have written this editorial.

In my considered judgment, if Notre Dame does not promote universal values with other like-minded aspirants, we will have failed Our Lady, our Church, our society and the principles we hold most dear.

After all, being “universal” is what Catholicism and Notre Dame are all about.


Terrence Keeley is a former Trustee of the University, a current member of the Nanovic Institute Advisory Board, Senior Managing Principal of Sovereign Trends, LLC and a Founding Director of the Financial Hippocratic Oath. He can be contacted at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.