Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

When Reverend Talks Ethics, He Means Business

Silicon Valley Center Director Holds Workshops for Executives

By Bill Workman, Chronicle Staff Writer
posted in 1998

The Rev. Tom Shanks, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Santa Clara, first became aware of questions of fairness while competing for a prized camera in his Brooklyn parochial school's fund-raising candy sale.

It seems that Shanks' father, then circulation manager for the old New York World Journal American, strongly urged his fellow workers to buy young Tom's candy bars, a boost that helped put him ahead of the other kids in sales.

"I still took the camera,'' recalls Shanks, laughing. "But it got me thinking: What did other kids do who didn't have a father in a position to do that for them?''

Shanks, who later tutored black teenagers in New York's Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto while only a teenager himself, has been grappling with issues of fairness both personally and professionally ever since, honing skills that six years ago led to appointment of the Jesuit-educated priest as the ethics center's leader.

A recognized expert in ethical decision-making, the amiable, energetic Shanks, 48, who boasts a dapper, pencil-thin mustache and has put away his priestly collar in favor of the crisp, button-down look of a businessman, has become known in Silicon Valley as "the man in the middle.''

He's often called on to consult and give workshops in ethics for government and school officials, corporate executives, health care providers, engineering professionals, nonprofit and community leaders, as well as the faculty and staff at Santa Clara University.

Little more than a year ago, the center drew wide media attention for holding a conference that brought the O.J. Simpson defense team to the university to debate courtroom ethics at the trial. In recent months, Shanks has done studies on ethics in politics and on the ethical implications in the ongoing controversy over Internet access to pornography in San Jose's children's libraries.

It's work that doesn't always make him friends, says Shanks, even though his approach is to listen to all sides of an issue objectively and then inform them what the ethical alternatives are.

Shanks and his colleagues at the center are preparing to host a major, two-day conference June 5 and 6 on "Ethics and Technology'' that's expected to draw leaders from a number of Silicon Valley companies.

The conference will be interactively linked to similar gatherings of high-tech and academic participants at Boston College and Loyola University of Chicago.

Panels will deal with such topics as the impact of the emerging Internet technologies on privacy, property rights, justice, the common good and virtue; "winners and losers'' on the information highway, with an emphasis on the Net's affects on children, and ethical issues raised by human genome mapping and other biological advances.

Shanks will open the conference with a presentation of a center model for ethical decision-making, one that tackles the question of how much a community is responsible as a matter of public policy in providing access to the Internet for all residents, in a democracy that promises equal opportunity in education and other public services.

"Do you have a moral right to technology if that technology is going to help you live your life, to get health services, to get a job, to get education for your child?'' asks Shanks. "If you do, then society has an obligation to provide it.''

It's been the 10-year-old center's mission to raise questions about "what an ethical technology looks like, and a lot of companies are interested in that,'' says Shanks.

At the same time, he believes there was much more of an ethical culture in Silicon Valley's early days, when pioneering entrepreneurs like Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard and Apple Computer co- founder Mike Markkula (whose seed money helped establish the ethics center) were "not concerned as much with money as they were with creating something cool with all sorts of possibilities.''

Nowadays, Shanks maintains, ethical considerations are in danger of being put on the back burner in a region where material worth is an increasingly dominant value for many, and the disparity between wealth and poverty grows. "Some people here are even debating whether integrity should be one of the top five characteristics for the CEO of a startup,'' Shanks smiles, ruefully.

Nonetheless, it's not just a cliche to say that "good ethics is good business,'' he insists. "In the long run it really is. If you don't care about your product, if you can't trust your employees, if you can't tell the truth to your stockholders, pretty soon you don't have a business.''

Ethics, he says, is really about relationships and how we should live. "You keep coming back to what are the standards people can use when it comes to judging what is right and what is wrong.''

He concedes, however, that defining those standards can be especially difficult when it's a question of reconciling ethical issues that seem to be emerging almost daily in the Information Age.

"It's a lot like planting your feet firmly in mid-air,'' Shanks quips.

Workman writes from The Chronicle's Peninsula bureau;
he can be reached at (650) 961-2499 or by fax at (650) 961-5023. E-mail wworkman@sfgate.com.

(c)1998 San Francisco Chronicle

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