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Kenan Institute brews ethics amid scandal

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By Elizabeth Floyd

Amid recent ethical scandals in business and education sectors alike, the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University has positioned itself as a steady force for change, infusing ethical inquiry across university, secondary-school and corporate boundaries.

Though high media-coverage of ethical lapses has plagued both corporate and higher-education campuses in the past few years, the institute’s combination of academic research and community mentorship seeks not only to provide a quick fix, but to fill a perennial need.

“Our role has not been primarily as external spokesperson on ethics, but as internal consultant,” says Noah Pickus, the institute’s director.

The attention these scandals have brought provides the opportunity for targeted institutions to enact major reforms in line with one of the institute’s missions — evaluating and strengthening ethical cultures.

Duke itself has been rocked by scandals over the past year and a half, including rape allegations against members of the men’s lacrosse team, and a widespread cheating scandal at the university’s Fuqua School of Business.

Yet its role has been a backstage one.

“We’re not the moral scold,” says Pickus. “[Duke] President [Richard] Brodhead’s favorite image for us is as a teabag, which is to say that ethics should be infused across the community. Our role so far has been to work quietly and productively with different institutions on campus to help strengthen them.”

For several years, the Kenan Institute already had been quietly playing that role with both Duke’s athletics department and business school before either scandal broke, Pickus says.

Founded at Duke in 1995 by the late philanthropist Frank Hawkins Kenan to address what he saw as a growing failure of principled standards in public and business spheres, the institute has nurtured both the study and application of ethics at different levels, from individual to institution, and in a variety of sectors.

“Our job is to serve the university community and then bring the university’s resources into the broader community outside,” explains Pickus.

At Duke, this mission has resulted in a focus on integrity both inside and outside the classroom, he says.

Funded in part by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which publishes the Philanthropy Journal, the institute in recent years has been intimately involved with revising Duke’s honor code, instituting ethical inquiry requirements for both undergraduates and graduate students, and the founding in 2002 of both the Center for Genome Ethics, Law and Policy, and Duke’s first service-learning initiative.

Beyond the university, the institute has launched a middle school character-development curriculum as a pilot project in five schools in North Carolina and St. Louis, as well as a business ethics program that offers local companies a customized crash course in ethical effectiveness.

The recent breakup of a decade-long partnership with the Center for Academic Integrity has posed yet another challenge to the institute in a year already fraught with difficulties.

The center announced in April that it would be leaving Duke in July for Clemson University.

Citing differences in long-term goals, the institute has billed this transition as an opportunity to deepen its own work outside the area of academic integrity.

In the coming year, work at the institute will continue its broad reach, while also establishing depth in a few areas, including moral or individual ethics, organizational ethics, and civil and global ethical policymaking, Pickus says.

The institute also hopes to further develop its academic certificate program in ethics, which opened to Duke undergraduates this spring, and its Changing Institutional Cultures research program and lecture series, which connects scholars from diverse backgrounds to explore the ethical cultures of military, religious, business, and educational institutions.

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