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Don Heider sits in front of a book shelf

Don Heider sits in front of a book shelf

Newsroom to Classroom

Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center For Applied Ethics, reflects on his journey to SCU and the importance of engaging Silicon Valley in important conversations about ethics.

Don Heider, executive director of the Markkula Center For Applied Ethics, reflects on his journey to Santa Clara and the importance of engaging Silicon Valley in increasingly important conversations about ethics. 

Don Heider took the reins as executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics in August. He comes to the Center from Loyola University in Chicago, where he was associate provost for strategy & innovation and dean of the School of Communication. He also was the founder of the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola.

Recently he sat down with Deepa Arora, director of media and internal communications at SCU, to talk about his background and his vision for the Ethics Center.

How did you first get involved in ethics?

Don Heider: I started my career in journalism as a news photographer at a TV station. You’re faced with ethical decisions the moment you put a camera on your shoulder: Where can you shoot? What’s public property? What’s private property? What’s invading somebody’s privacy? When you go out and shoot an accident scene or something that has very graphic video, what do you shoot? What do you not shoot?

Ethics has been a part of my career really throughout my life. Since I started teaching I’ve put ethics in every course I’ve taught. Whether I’m teaching a research methods course or even a theory course, ethics, to me, always has to be front and center.

One of the things that I thought was interesting when I got into teaching was that ethics and diversity were almost always confined to the last two chapters in the textbook. My goal has been to take those two topics and completely incorporate them into the very fiber of what I’m teaching because they’re not add-ons.

What drew you to Santa Clara University?

DH: About nine years ago, we started the Center for Digital Ethics at Loyola, and the Markkula Center came on my radar. I touched base with Sally Lehrman [Center senior director of Journalism Ethics], and a few years later we invited Irina Raicu [Center director of Internet Ethics] to come do a talk at our symposium. When somebody sent me the job notice for the executive director, it was something I was familiar with. Also, as my daughter was taking college tours, she was very interested in not being in the cold weather. She picked Santa Clara University. This was her favorite, and she’s now a senior.

Talk to me a little bit about your training as a journalist and as a TV news producer in the ’80s. How did that happen?

HEIDER: I wanted to work in television, so I started out producing commercials at a small TV station in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I did it for a couple of months, but it got old in a hurry. Making tires look beautiful is not the most interesting job.

I noticed that everything interesting at the TV station was happening in the newsroom. That’s where I just ended up going when I had a few minutes. When they had an opening for a news photographer, I jumped at the chance.

I was a photographer for only three months and then they had a reporter opening. I became a reporter. I did that for about a year and then they convinced me to become a producer. I enjoyed it.

This has been my pattern; I think I like being in charge. Just to shoot the pictures or just to tell one story was great. But to be able to affect the entire newscast and think about what stories we were covering, how we were covering them, what was the lead story—that was what I really enjoyed.

I was able to do that in Chattanooga and Nashville. I went back and forth between producing newscasts and then becoming a special projects producer, which just means producing longer, more serious pieces, coordinating election coverage, that kind of stuff. That was a lot of fun because you get to work in more depth, which isn’t exactly what television is known for but you can do really effective work if given the time.

What led you out of the news business?

DH: It was a very personal decision. I honestly woke up in the middle of the night with this question on my mind: What am I doing with my life? As I accounted for what I was doing and did that personal happiness check, I realized I was part of a special projects unit and we were isolated. As a journalist, I was producing a new series every three weeks. I’d parachute into somebody’s life, get to know them, get them to tell me their story, and then I’d go onto the next story. What I missed was working with people over time. In the meantime, I had been invited to do some guest lecturing, and I really enjoyed it thoroughly. So I decided to do both. I went to American University in D.C. to get my masters, and got a job with a Washington news bureau, so I was able to still keep a foot in journalism. The minute I taught a class at American, I absolutely fell in love with it and realized that was what I wanted to do.

What is the importance of digital ethics in society today, and what was the goal of the Center for Digital Ethics that you helped found?

DH: The people at Loyola who started the Center for Digital Ethics were all doing research in the digital space. One person was interested in the ethical implications of putting journalism on the web. There were already cases that weren’t covered under, for instance, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. In other words, the technology was making the profession change and do things that nobody had thought of before. We weren’t keeping pace.

I was doing research in virtual worlds. As part of a big research project, I was studying different communities. In one community, there was a major ethical breach. What was interesting to me was that nobody in the community felt the same way about the breach, about what should happen to the person who had committed the breach. That person had violated people’s trust. On one end of the spectrum, people said the person should be banned from the community. On the other end, people said, “Oh, it’s the internet. Anything can happen.” Then there were 100 variations of that in between. That got me very interested in this question: How are we going to talk about ethics in these virtual spaces and online. At the Center for Digital Ethics, we had two goals: to try to encourage more academic research into ethics regarding all digital technology, and to put together a series of essays discussing the ethical issues and put them online for lay people, for anybody.

That’s what we did. We launched a website first and then held our first symposium. We produced several volumes of work based on the research that was presented at the symposium. We’ve published over 150 essays on digital ethics topics.

How do you hope to capitalize on the Santa Clara University’s Silicon Valley location?

DH: When we launched the Center for Digital Ethics, I did become a bit envious of the Center’s location. I mean, the more you're in that space, the more you want to engage people who are working in technology.

For instance, Google has a fairly large office in Chicago. I think it’s over 600 people now. When they started it had 40. It’s grown exponentially, but, you know, it's not really the nerve center.

To come out to California, to the Ethics Center and see our folks in technology ethics and in internet ethics and see what inroads they’ve already made with the tech community—that’s really exciting. We’re in this unique role as an ethics think tank l. We want to be a voice advocating for ethics. We also want to be helpful.

We’re not opponents of technology or tech companies. We want to help them understand how they might make better ethical decisions about the technology they continually unleash upon the world, right? To form a partnership is just ideal. It’s not compromising our ability to be able to still be critical, but we can go in and help them ask the critical questions.

Even if we don’t ultimately agree with their decisions, just to get them to go through the process of thinking about potential harm, for instance, or privacy violations, I think is an incredibly valuable thing.

You had the Ethics Center staff introduce themselves to you by describing their ringtones. What’s yours?

DH: Mine is a jazz lick. I'm a big jazz fan. In Chicago, I did a jazz show on the radio for nine and a half years.

What is it about Santa Clara that gets you excited?

DH: I think in many ways SCU has interesting parallels to Loyola in that it’s a small university in this very important area in the world, and over the last several decades, it’s increased its reputation and its reach, even in this center of some really excellent educational institutions. Loyola was similar. We had Northwestern up the pike and University of Chicago south.

Our challenge at Loyola was to still make our mark. I think Santa Clara has done that. No knock on Stanford or UC, Berkeley, but I think what the Jesuits offer in terms of values and education really does bring unique value to the table. I think it can definitely be seen in the way the Center operates and the values that we promote.

What has surprised you about California in the two weeks that you’ve been here? About the South Bay even.

DH: Property values. Yeah. I mean, it is shocking. But I've certainly enjoyed the weather.

One big picture question: Ethics can serve as a lens for so many topics. Do you ever turn that off? Or are you constantly analyzing things even when you’re watching “Game of Thrones”?

DH: I think it never goes off though I tend to be forgiving of guilty pleasures like “Game of Thrones.” I don’t believe in gratuitous sex and violence on TV. But that is one show where I feel like they have done a pretty good job of giving plot-driven reasons for what they do. Anyway, ethics doesn’t ruin all popular media for me. I'll say that.



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