Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

A Second Life In Ethics

Neil Quinn never expected to find himself on the staff of not one but two academic institutions: the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and the Center for Science, Technology, and Society (CSTS), both at Santa Clara University.

With his Ph.D. in electrical engineering from University of Southern California, Quinn spent the first 30 years of his professional life working as an engineer, eventually founding his own business, Quad-Q Systems. Specializing in computerized process control systems, Quinn’s company created marine mammal life-support systems for sea worlds and zoos; medical instrumentation control systems; and air conditioning, heating, and ventilation control systems, among others.

The turning point in Quinn’s professional life came when he started to serve as an expert witness in several court cases. "There were quite a few where I recused myself because of what I thought was unethical behavior on the part of the lawyers or companies that had asked me to be a witness," he remembers. "I knew what they were doing wasn’t right, but I didn’t know how to express what was wrong with it. I was unable to give them a way of thinking about the situation that might have been more ethical."

Quinn decided that the way to solve this problem was to go to Notre Dame University to pursue a master’s degree in theology with a specialty in business ethics. Others thought he was crazy. "People couldn’t figure out what in the hell I was doing this for," he allows. "But I thought it would help me in the long run if I could have a more formal approach to how to do ethics."

Still, an academic career was "not even on the radar screen" until he was approached by the dean of the Business School at Notre Dame to join the faculty as a business ethicist. Fortunately for Santa Clara University, Quinn was at that time serving on the SCU Board of Regents, and University President Paul Locatelli, S.J., persuaded him to pursue his work here instead.

Quinn divides his time between the Ethics Center and CSTS, working especially on projects that unite the two institutions. For example, he is heading up the annual conference on technology ethics, sponsored jointly by SCU, Loyola University Chicago, and Boston College.

In 2001, the event will take place at Santa Clara. Quinn is planning to post the proceedings from the conference on both institutions’ Web sites. He designed the new CSTS site ( and has worked with the Ethics Connection ( to update its infrastructure.

He also teaches Ethics and Technology, Understanding Digital Technology and Society, and Imbedded Microprocessor Systems.