Corrections or additions?

This article by Richard K. Rein was prepared for the October 16, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

On Ethics

Do you think they still have "bull sessions"

at college? If you were a student in the 1960s or ’70s, you might

recall the term, referring to highly informal but spirited conversations

on virtually any subject. You would never get college credit for taking

part in bull sessions (everyone knew the root of the word "bull"

and it wasn’t a Papal bull). But most would agree that bull sessions

were an important part of college life.

My guess is that they still do have bull sessions. But I’m also betting

that they call them something else these days, and I am basing that

on an employment ad I stumbled across in the October 9 issue of the

Princeton Alumni Weekly. Here’s how it begins:



an initiative funded by the Bildner Family Foundation, that is intended

to create institutional support for current and new projects to ensure

honest, ongoing dialogue on many topics — race, ethnicity, gender,

class, faith, class differences, social justice, and others —

among Princeton students, faculty, staff, and members of the larger

Princeton community.

Princeton’s coordinator will "investigate dialogue initiatives

underway on other campuses, provide administrative support for existing

groups, identify training consultants, coordinate the training of

facilitators," and "lead efforts to expand and create linkages

between dialogue groups."

This approach may seem more rigorous and disciplined than what you

may have experienced as an occasional participant in old fashioned

bull sessions, but remember that when bull sessions were in vogue,

the word dialogue was just a noun. It had not yet gained status as

a verb, as in "let’s dialogue with each other."

Moreover, especially at a place like Princeton University, there are

lots of subjects about which to dialogue. Take that admissions office

controversy: We wrote previously about the admissions officer who

got into Yale’s virtually unprotected website, notified Yale of his

entry (to Yale’s immediate disinterest), but then got hung out to

dry along with his immediate superior, the dean of admissions. That

incident provoked a six-page statement from the university’s president

that was on the order of a Papal bull, in this case a Princeton bull.

And at an institution that holds itself up to the highest moral standards

(without endorsing any single one of them), it just keeps getting

deeper and thicker. Let’s dialogue about Meg Whitman, CEO of Ebay

and a member of the Princeton Class of 1977. In February Whitman gave

$30 million to her alma mater to fund the creation of another cluster

of undergraduate dormitories — to be called Whitman College (as

in Forbes College).

But more recently Whitman’s name came up on a Congressional list of

22 CEOs who were given early access to initial public offerings, making

their fast money before the real public ever had a chance. The Daily

Princetonian reported that Whitman acknowledged the trading in a private

E-mail to her employees at Ebay. She called the report "painful"

but emphasized that what she did was not illegal and denied that her

personal investments had any bearing on her decisions with respect

to Ebay.

"A fundamental tenet of my life is to conduct my personal and

professional activities under the highest ethical standards,"

she was quoted as saying. "Given my experience yesterday, I plan

to participate in the growing national debate about corporate governance

and business ethics."

If we apply the same stringent standards to Whitman as the university

did to the admissions office, we ought to have a spirited dialogue:

Should the university give the money back? Should a panel of Princeton

economists and alumni investment bankers be convened to determine

what portion of Whitman’s riches came from pre-initial public offerings,

and should that portion be returned?

Living up to any code of honor is not easy. Author (and occasional

U.S. 1 contributor) Edward Tenner, Class of 1965, will speak next

Wednesday, October 23, at 4:30 p.m. in the Computer Science building

on the subject of Woodrow Wilson and the honor code at Princeton.

That code is direct and simple — Princeton students pledge that

they have neither given nor received information helpful on their

exams, which are administered with no proctors. But through the years

the code’s enforcement has been challenged in numerous ways.

No one is saying "honest, ongoing dialogue" on such charged

subjects as race, class differences, and social justice will ever

be easy. Exactly the reason why Princeton now searches for a coordinator

of dialogue. We can imagine the "initiative" turning into

a program and then an area of academic concentration. Someday it could

be a full fledged academic department. Inevitably the question would

arise: Should the new department lead to a B.A. degree, or a B.S.?

Previous Story

Corrections or additions?

This page is published by

— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.

Facebook Comments