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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

A Legacy in Ethics

Kristi Markkula Bowers reflects on her family’s connection to the Ethics Center

Miriam Schulman

Kristi Bowers, right, congratulates Courtney Meehan, winner of the 2010 Markkula Prize for undergraduate contributions to applied ethics.

When her parents, Linda and A.C. "Mike" Markkula Jr. gave the seed money to start an ethics center at Santa Clara University 25 years ago, Kristi Markkula Bowers, then an SCU freshman, didn't want to have anything to do with it.

"Not that I wasn’t interested in ethics," she remembers, "but I wanted to carve my own path at school. So, I knew where the center was, but that was the extent of my involvement."

Now, as the Center celebrates its first 25 years, Bowers reflects on why she and her family have stayed so closely connected to the institution that bears their name. Bowers herself now serves on the Executive Committee of the Center's Advisory Board, and the Markkula Family Foundation continues to be a major supporter of the Center's activities.

The Markkulas got in on the ground floor of the Ethics Center when they attended a welcome weekend for the parents of Santa Clara University freshmen in 1986. Mike, a co-founder of Apple Computer, was concerned about the "ethical agnosticism" he saw in many young people coming out of college, and he and Linda were eager to raise the level of ethical awareness in the Silicon Valley and beyond.

They were intrigued by a proposal to build a center on campus that would focus the ethics-related efforts of faculty in all disciplines. The Center grew from initial workshops for faculty on how to integrate ethics into the curriculum, and now offers programs for the campus, the Silicon Valley, and the larger world on bioethics, business ethics, character education, government ethics, and Internet ethics.

Bowers says her parents were always interested in ethics. "In high school, " she remembers, "I would get into ethics discussions with my father that lasted so late into the night that my mom would say, 'Okay, you two stay up and philosophize, but I’m going to bed.' Dad was extraordinarily good at not telling me what to think but teaching me how to think through the issues by asking me questions about my own values.”

Markkula brought that approach to the Ethics Center when he served as the first Advisory Board chair. One of the Center’s first projects was the development of the “Framework for Ethical Decision Making,” which helps people think through their own dilemmas. To Bowers, this is one of the core strengths of the Center.

Markkula was the Board chair from the Center's inception until he was tapped to serve as a university trustee. Then he suggested that Bowers join the Center board. "By that time, I was 28 years old and pregnant with my first child," she recalls. "By then I was less concerned with carving my own path and realized that when a door opens, it’s about what you do when you step through it, not who opened it for you."

Bowers continued her family's legacy at the Center. She had a particular affinity for the Character Education Program because she felt that changing a young life for the better “lifts all boats.” "If there’s one philanthropic area where you get a lot of bang for your buck, it’s working with children," she says. "When you change the trajectory of a kid who is not on track to finish his education, that doesn’t just change the child’s life; that changes all of our lives."

Under the direction of Bowers and Linda Markkula, the Markkula Family Foundation has been major supporter of the Center's Character-Based Literacy Curriculum, which integrates ethics into classes in the language arts, history, and science. "We started out focusing on at-risk kids in alternative and court-community schools," Bowers explains, "but, truly, all kids are at risk when it comes to character. Every child benefits from learning about courage or responsibility or justice." Recently, the curriculum has been adapted to the new National Common Core Standards, making it appropriate for students in public and Catholic schools across the country.

The Markkulas have also had a particular interest in IT and ethics, and their foundation provided the seed funding for the Center's newest program, Internet Ethics. That program is creating online educational modules for college classes on privacy and on software engineering ethics. And Mike Markkula has been featured on the program's video series, "Internet Ethics: Views From Silicon Valley."

In the years since the Center's founding, focus areas in business, health care, and government have also become part of its activities, in addition to its original campus ethics program.

The Markkulas have been part of all those developments, although they tend to downplay their own importance. In fact, when the center was named for them in 1995, it came as a surprise, not, as often happens in philanthropy, as a condition of their gifts.

Bowers says her parents were never impressed with their wealth or position. She remembers when Apple hit $100 million in sales: "I asked my dad, 'Aren’t you proud of your accomplishment? Don’t you want a trophy or something to honor what you did?' But he said, 'It doesn't matter who did it; what matters is that it got done. I'm one very small part of that.'"

May 15, 2013