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Kirk Hanson

Kirk Hanson

Radical in Residence

In the business world, being ethical can make you a rebel. Commencement speaker Kirk O. Hanson on a career keeping innovation honest.

In the business world, being ethical can make you a rebel. Commencement speaker Kirk O. Hanson on a career keeping innovation honest.  

Kirk O. Hanson
has been called “the conscience of Silicon Valley,” and for good reason: he’s spent most of his life burrowing into the thorny field of business and professional ethics in the region, studying and teaching about its real-life applications and consequences.

As executive director of Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics since 2001, Hanson has helped it become the largest and most active university-based ethics center in the world.

Not only do its staff and faculty scholars provide leadership and ethical programming to SCU’s 9,000 students, but vast numbers of professionals in business, education, health care, journalism, government, technology, and the non-profit social sector continue to benefit from its research.

Late last year, Hanson announced he would step down from his position sometime this summer. But before he does, the renown ethics giant will address Santa Clara University’s Class of 2018 as their commencement speaker.

We caught up with Hanson to find out what makes him tick, what the Markkula Center means to him, and what his future plans entail.

What do you have in mind for the graduates on Saturday?

KH: I’ll talk about how the special characteristics of a Santa Clara University education prepare our graduates for both a successful career and a purposeful and satisfying life—and what they have to do to seize those dimensions in their own life after Santa Clara.

Do you believe SCU students are more attuned to ethics than students at other universities?

KH: I think it’s more difficult for a secular university that does not have a religious base to talk about ethical questions or to incorporate them into their education. There is a commitment at Santa Clara to thinking about how ethics applies to the real world. It was one of Saint Ignatius' strong beliefs that we have to work on how we encounter God in the world. That has created an openness to thinking about ethics and values and how you put them to work in a professional life and in your personal life.

When you tell people you run an ethics center, what’s their reaction?

KH: They say, “What the heck does an ethics center do?” And I say it’s a center directed at helping professionals and executives make good, ethical choices.

Does their reaction surprise you?

KH: I think ethics is generally misunderstood in American society. People interpret ethics as a criticism of their behavior. They believe they don’t need ethics programs because they're already good people. Or, they think it’s an exercise in compliance with the law—dumb, dull, and trivial. And so you have to raise their sights about the fact that they make ethical choices every day, that every professional and every leadership role has a series of unavoidable ethical choices, even if you are the executive director of the ethics center!

Really? Like what?

KH: Oh, there are human resources dilemmas. You have questions about how to accommodate the aspirations of your individual employees. And you have a continuing obligation to your donors to use their contributions effectively, as they intended.

Where did you first learn about ethics?

KH: My family tradition is very clerical. There were at least five generations of Lutheran ministers in my father’s family, including a couple of Lutheran Bishops in Norway and in the U.S. Ethics questions were always important to ministry. My brother Eric Hanson, who taught political science at SCU for 41 years, had been a Jesuit. And I went to Yale Divinity School as a Rockefeller Fellow; our upbringing was a search for how religion and values would affect our careers.

Kirk Hanson and Dalai Lama


How did you get into this field?

KH: I graduated from Stanford and got my MBA there. As the editor of the Stanford Daily, I had been very critical of business and its role in the world—I was a typical 1960s liberal. My first exposure to business ethics was in the summer of 1967 when I was hired as an intern at Hewlett-Packard, by future HP CEO John Young. A reporter dubbed it “the radical-in-residence program.’’ I argued with John all summer, but he convinced me that one could work with business and help it be more responsible. It led me to help start a non-profit organization in Chicago called the Concerned Business Students, which was trying to convince business schools to teach business ethics. Then I went to a three-year graduate program at Harvard, where I was studying business ethics, which was not yet a field at Harvard.

So when did the study of business ethics really take off?

KH: Until 1978, the only place ethics was taught as part of business education was at Jesuit universities. Then it expanded to secular schools.

What do you think inspired that change?

KH: There is a direct line that led to its creation. The first major ethics shock was all the companies caught contributing illegally to the Nixon re-election campaign in 1972. Then, around 1977, you had all the scandals over corporate bribery abroad, including Lockheed locally. That led major secular business schools in 1978 to hire their first business ethics professors. And I got the job at Stanford in 1978, where I stayed until 2001 when I left to go to the Markkula Center.

How did that come about?

KH: I was on the Advisory Board at Markkula, and Father Paul Locatelli asked me if I would be interested in applying for the job of Executive Director.

What attracted you to the position?

KH: The center was committed to applied ethics, not theoretical or philosophical ethics. It addressed the real ethical dilemmas faced by managers and executives.

Were there other key factors for you?

KH: Yes. We were not under the administrative jurisdiction and supervision of a dean or department chair. I report to the provost’s office. That’s given us a lot of freedom to do things that most centers are unable to do, like developing a staff that could address the real problems of executives and professionals.

What else?

KH: Silicon Valley has so many issues and opportunities involving ethics—it’s fertile ground. Being located in a Jesuit university where there was an active acceptance of ethical inquiry did not exist in most secular universities. I felt much freer at Santa Clara to raise ethical questions than I ever could at Stanford.

Your leadership has enhanced the profile of the center, and helped to expand its programs. Why leave now? 

KH: First of all, 17 years is more than any leader at an institution should serve. Any leader has a set of ideas that fit a particular institution, and you put those to work. But you don’t have as many ideas 10 years or 17 years later. It helps to have an influx of new ideas. The second reason is that I’m 72 years old. And I want some more time freed up so I can write on applied ethics—I’ll still have some things to say! But I will stay involved with the center. The third explanation is that my wife and I decided we would both step down at the same time from our leadership roles and create time with each other.

Are you involved in the search for your replacement?

KH: No. The tradition at Santa Clara is that the incumbent has no role in his or her succession. But the search committee tells me that they are very impressed by the extremely high-level pool of candidates who applied. Our global reputation has attracted great interest.

What challenges do you see on the horizon for your successor?

KH: How to sustain support through the transition and the longer term. But what is exciting about the Markkula Center is that dozens of major donors have come to believe in the mission of the center and that is it a critical mission for our society today.

Any other issues? 

KH: How to keep the center relevant to society’s changing ethical needs. Who would have thought that we would be discussing leadership ethics as actively as we are today? And who would have anticipated the incredibly complex issue around the use of Artificial Intelligence in our technology? Three years ago, I spotted AI and ethics as an important issue and I concluded that it was going to be the most important issue over the next 10 years for the center. So I started building up expertise in the staff in AI and ethics.

Finally, how do you measure the impact of the center since its founding in 1986? 

KH: We have helped Santa Clara University reach an entire generation—32 years of students—and that’s a major contribution.

We now have 70 faculty scholars who have an on-going research and teaching interest in ethics; no other university in the world has that number of faculty.  We have worked with a wide variety of companies and other institutions; 100 universities are using one of our engineering ethics modules, and 15 universities are using our business ethics MOOC (massive open online courses) as an internal part of their curriculum. We track our web views—over two million a year; we have an app with thousands of downloads; there are 300 YouTube videos and at least 1,000 pages of cases online. Our development of educational resources is having an impact around the world.