Yes, but is it the right thing to do?

Yes, but is it the right thing to do?
Illustrations by Stuart Bradford
From business to government to college campuses, it’s not always a question that gets asked. But here’s how the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics set out to change that.

When Jon Hoak arrived at Hewlett-Packard in the fall of 2006, it was as the new chief ethics officer for a company badly in need of one. For decades HP had stood as a venerable statesman of Silicon Valley, esteemed as one of the original startups to go from the garage to greatness, all with its moral compass firmly intact.

But the company had recently been roiled by news of an internal investigation run amok. Searching for the source of media leaks, HP had hired security teams that impersonated journalists and members of the company’s own board to access their directors’ phone records.

The scandal brought down several high-ranking HP officials, its chairwoman included, and resulted in state and federal indictments. For those putting the pieces back together, Hoak high among them, it meant ensuring a new way of thinking.

New to the Bay Area, Hoak says one of his early goals was to connect with ethics experts for advice and counsel. He discovered what he wanted 20 minutes down the freeway at SCU’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, beginning a relationship that lasts to this day.

He became a regular in the center’s Business and Organizational Ethics Partnership, a quarterly retreat with industry leaders and academics that begins with an “ethics check-in,” a chance for members to talk about the issues on their mind, all under Chatham House rules—that is, attendees may share what they hear but without revealing identities. To Hoak, the gatherings, which focused on issues from executive pay to whistle-blowers, were a rare opportunity to rise from the trenches and learn from fellow leaders.

A year after he arrived, Hoak, who is now general counsel for Flextronics, gave a presentation to the group on what had happened at HP, a problem he described succinctly. “Nobody asked, ‘Even if it’s legal, is it the right thing to do?’” he said.


It was concerns about just such shortsightedness that led to the founding of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics a quarter century ago—27 years ago, to be exact, though the center is belatedly celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, a fact Executive Director Kirk Hanson jokingly attributes to how busy they’ve been.

Certainly they’ve not been idle. Once a small office in Orradre Library, the Markkula Center is now the largest university-based ethics center in the world, according to Hanson, with a widening reputation for serious analysis of modern quandaries in all manner of topics, though it specializes in six: bioethics, business ethics, campus ethics, Internet ethics, government ethics, and character education.

From its home in the Arts and Sciences Building, the center has become a far-reaching beacon. Its website, full of white papers on issues running the gamut from patient care to Internet privacy, brings in more than 2 million visitors a year. Its services are used by schools across the country, local governments across the state, and businesses throughout the Bay Area. And its experts speak to reporters around the world on issues from the perceived perils of 3-D printing to the finer points of conflicts of interest.

One thing the center doesn’t provide is an official endorsement on particular issues, though individual staff members may give their own opinions. That reflects a decision reached in the center’s early days under then-President Paul Locatelli, S.J. ’60, M.Div. ’74, says A.C. “Mike” Markkula Jr., whose family championed the center since its beginning.

“Both Fr. Locatelli and I were adamant that if the center took positions it would go nowhere,” says Markkula, whose storied Silicon Valley career includes co-founding Apple Inc. “What we really had to do was offer people a way to think through ethical dilemmas and come to their own decisions.”

Markkula’s support for the center sprang from a moment of serendipity. He and his wife, Linda, were attending a parent orientation—their daughter Kristi Markkula Bowers ’90, MBA ’97, now a member of the center’s advisory board and an SCU trustee, was beginning her freshman year—when Joseph Subbiondo, dean of Arts and Sciences, mentioned the school had considered starting an ethics center.

It was a passing comment, but one that hit Markkula between the eyes. “My little red light went on,” he says. Ethics and philosophy had been lifelong interests; Markkula calls them adjuncts to his interests in engineering and science. But increasingly, he felt too many people had been raised as ethical agnostics, rarely factoring right and wrong into decisions.

And so the Markkulas began their support for the center, starting with funding for annual operating costs, later expanding to an endowment and continuing ever since in a wide variety of ways. In 1995, the center was renamed in their honor, a distinction that Markkula still shakes his head over. “Who cares what the Markkula Center is?” he says. “It should be the Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, period. But Fr. Locatelli insisted.”

As Apple’s chairman, and a veteran of other Silicon Valley giants, Markkula was naturally interested in the ethical conundrums of big tech. But his desires to promote ethics were largely motivated by events anyone reading the newspaper might have worried about. In the mid-1980s, he says as an example, a raft of municipalities closed facilities like pools and parks out of fear of being sued. Elected leaders felt they were doing their duty by protecting the public, he says. Insurance companies, whose rates set off the panic, were only trying to provide a service at a reasonable profit. And city administrators thought they were doing the right thing, too. But nobody was taking stock of the larger consequences.

“All of these people thought they were being ethical, but the net result was not helping the common good,” Markkula says.


One of the center’s refrains is that it’s far easier to be ethical if you build ethics into your routine. It’s like a muscle—keep it in shape and it’ll come through when you need it. Ignore it, and don’t be surprised when it fails. But it’s hard to train something you’ve rarely been taught to engage or even acknowledge.

So one of the center’s early focuses was a simple but thorough primer, “The Framework for Ethical Decision Making,” a 10-step process for recognizing, dealing with, and learning from ethical dilemmas that remains core to the center’s DNA today. “I know personally several CEOs who have the framework stuck up in their cubicle or office,” Markkula says. “It’s not difficult to include ethics as part of your decision-making process if it’s something that you do normally.”

Not all of the center’s attempts to serve as both mirror and light for society have succeeded. Early on, the center focused on campus-based programs, the beginning of a robust addition to school life that has brought ethics to the fore through speakers, scholarships, and even an Ethics Bowl team. This summer the center’s recurring Ethics at Noon event hosted a panel on Trayvon Martin, justice, and race. But some early attempts to make a similar mark off campus sputtered, Markkula says. They once approached a bar association offering to review its code of ethics—which turned out to be slim reading. The association replied that the center could do as it pleased, Markkula recalls, but nobody would read its findings, let alone act on them.


But in other ways, the center quickly amassed widespread influence, perhaps no more so than in its character education program, the brainchild of former principal and teacher Steve Johnson. Today schools in virtually every county in California, as far away as Alaska, and in increasing parts of the country have turned to its Character-Based Literacy program, which uses literature to teach ethics. The program has provided valuable support to at-risk students and is now being adapted for the national Common Core standards.

Tom Kostic, a teacher in Orange County, first started using the program a decade ago, after joining a dozen teachers from his district who flew to Santa Clara for a week of training. From the beginning, he says, it was clear the curriculum was like nothing he had used before. Most attempts at character education are awkward additions to the school day, like sayings on posters or “quotes of the day” that do little to engage students. But CBL infused ethics into the core curriculum, providing the training and lesson plans to take books like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men or Elie Wiesel’s Night or even Harry Potter and ask students to consider the situations faced by the characters and how their responses exemplified—or fell short of—values like courage or responsibility.

It was a two-for-one deal, Kostic says. His reluctant readers suddenly cared about books, getting important literary exposure. At the same time they were reflecting on their own actions and how they measured up to certain values in ways they had never done before.

Almost immediately, Kostic says, the teachers he trained with demanded that the district expand the program. Within a year and a half, 150 teachers from Kostic’s district had been trained. Now Kostic himself trains teachers for the ethics center.

With such a transitory population—many of his students are dealing with homelessness, domestic abuse, and substance abuse problems and are gone within a few months—it’s difficult to quantify the changes with test scores. But for a teacher, the signs of success like reduced truancy and previously unseen levels of engagement are unmistakable, he says.

“This is created for the class where I have taught for the past 14 years,” he says. “It’s head and shoulders above. There is nothing else.”

Griselda Renteria ’07, M.A. ’09 concurs. A first-generation college graduate who is now a teacher in Cupertino, Renteria grew up around gangs, drugs, and family incarceration, arriving at Santa Clara in 2003 intending to work in law. But as a receptionist at the ethics center her freshman year, she came to work with Johnson, who told her he knew a teacher when he saw one.

She resisted at first but soon got drawn into what she was seeing. By her junior year, Renteria was teaching teens fresh out of juvenile hall, often dealing with young girls who were pregnant, already had babies, or had otherwise been marked by life on the edge. One student, her toughest, had 14 tattoos, one for each year of her life.

At first, the girl refused to participate. But slowly, she grew captivated by the novels they were reading. She still wouldn’t do the work, but she’d ask questions about why a character did something or whether her actions were right, queries that Renteria would turn around and ask her to answer.

“Little by little, she started writing, she started questioning her decisions, she started changing,” says Renteria, who mentored the girl, now a community college student, through her high school graduation. “With at-risk youth, you have to be able to relate the curriculum to their life. If you don’t, they couldn’t care less.”


The power of programs such as those in business ethics comes directly from having community partnerships that tie the center into real issues, says Miriam Schulman, the center’s assistant director. The center takes seriously the Applied part of its name. It’s not a place for abstract wondering. “The idea is to always be grounded in what is actually happening out in the world,” Schulman says. That is also true in bioethics, where the center has partnerships with O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, Seton Medical Center in Daly City, St. Louise Regional Hospital in Gilroy, and Hospice of the Valley that include serving on their ethics committees. That perch keeps the center’s eyes open for real health care dilemmas, like the challenges surrounding ailing patients who lack the facility to make their own decisions but who have no family to take over the role. Instead, sometimes court-appointed deputy public guardians fill the void, an awesome responsibility when it comes to decisions about end-of-life care, like whether to remove feeding tubes.

Such decisions are anguishing enough for family members, says Margaret McLean, director of the center’s bioethics program. But they are an order of magnitude more difficult to make for strangers about whose intentions you have no clue, she says.

In response, the center offered training for all such medical guardians in Santa Clara County, and made the training available online for others, to help guide them with a fuller understanding of their legal, medical, and ethical responsibilities.

“Often students are asking questions about the ethical implications of practices that have become second nature to the person doing them.”

The close relationship with the hospitals, which includes helping write ethics policies, has also provided a rare opportunity for students interested in real-world experience. Each year, around 15 students—many looking to become doctors—take a year-long internship that allows them to shadow doctors, nurses, other health professionals, social workers, and chaplains for five hours a week through rotations from the emergency department to the oncology unit.

It’s the only internship program of its kind in the country, says McLean, who spent seven years working with hospital administrators to bring the internship program online. It’s now entering its 13th year. Last spring nearly three times as many students applied as there were spaces, though it’s not an experience anyone enters into lightly. Students often witness the joy of recovery and birth, but also the pain of decline and death.

“You cannot be with patients and families in these times of crisis and not be changed by that,” McLean says. “I’m still changed by that and I’ve been doing this quite a while.”

For students, it’s an eye-opening look behind the curtain, but the learning typically goes both ways, McLean says. Often students are asking questions about the ethical implications of practices that have become so second nature to the person doing them. “I can’t remember how many times I heard, ‘Wow, I haven’t thought about this in a long time,’” says Anna Kozas ’09, a graduate of the internship and now the center’s bioethics program assistant.

Tasce Simon Bongiovanni ’03 is among the former interns to later practice medicine. Growing up with financial uncertainty, Bongiovanni had initially felt pulled to study accounting; the field also promised job security and good pay. Indeed, she had a position at Ernst & Young waiting for her after graduation. But during her senior year, a trip to El Salvador, where she met an ailing 5-year-old whose family couldn’t afford to take her to a distant doctor, helped Bongiovanni realize her desire to be a healer.

And so while her friends enjoyed the tail end of their SCU education, Bongiovanni bore down on biology and chemistry. She also enrolled in the Markkula internship program.

Until then, Bongiovanni says, she hadn’t realized the extent of health care access problems close to home. But at O’Connor she remembers indigent patients suffering from serious problems that could have been nipped in the bud by preventative or early care—and doctors’ weary asides that the person would have to sell all their possessions to repay the debt.

The center also allowed her to see another perspective on how health care is provided. Through the center, Bongiovanni received a $2,150 Hackworth grant to go to a village three hours outside Quito, Ecuador, to study a hopsital launched by a U.S. doctor who had also started his own low-cost insurance program, one that provided sustainable and quality care to the poor in a way that eluded many in America.

As a result, when she started medical school, Bongiovanni says, she arrived with a more humane view of the profession than if her preparations had been dominated solely by scientific and physiological concerns. It’s an outlook she maintains. Now in the fourth year of her residency for general surgery, Bongiovanni is a Robert Wood Johnson clinical scholar at Yale University where she is researching improving health care access in underserved communities.

Bongiovanni, who also has a master’s in public policy from Harvard, is still unsure how she’ll marry her passion for the operating room with her interest in shaping policy, she says, but as a doctor she feels a responsibility to at least try to offer answers to the dilemmas she first witnessed as a Markkula intern.

“There is so much need in our health care system in the U.S.,” she says. “People look to doctors for why the system is broken and how it needs to be fixed.”

Ultimately, such large, multifaceted problems are what best show the power of the Markkula Center, says bioethics program director McLean. There are other bioethics centers that focus intensively on medical matters, she says, but typically their expertise lacks the comparative depth that comes from being an applied ethics center.

An array of experts and programs provides the interdisciplinary perspective into taking on matters like medical access or genetic testing, which have business, governmental, and medical ethical implications. A broader understanding also allows evaluation of rapidly changing Internet ethics in an age when online databases can be breached and data, as well as specific electronic communication, intercepted like never before. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics doesn’t have all the answers, but they do have the personnel to surround an issue from many angles. “I’ve got colleagues here who can help me address all those things, and I don’t have to leave the office suite,” McLean says. “It’s the ability to bring multiple lenses to the same problem that I think is unique to the center.”
Find articles, videos, and much more at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics’ website.

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