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Mountaineer Elevates Ethics at Stanford
Thirty years ago, Bowen H. "Buzz" McCoy, '58, was climbing in the Himalayas when his team came upon a lone man standing barefoot and disoriented in the snow. What happened next has influenced not only McCoy, but also a growing number of Stanford students.
This year marks the fifth anniversary of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society at Stanford, endowed with a gift of nearly $10 million from McCoy and his wife, Barbara. That gift, part of a journey he began on that Himalayan slope, has now elevated the study of ethics from a small undergraduate honors program to a theme running throughout Stanford's curriculum.
The Parable of the Sadhu
The man stranded in the snow was a "sadhu," a holy man making a pilgrimage. But McCoy and his fellow climbers knew the weather was unstable and that stopping for long would jeopardize their goals and safety. So they bundled the sadhu in spare clothing from their packs and moved on, expecting mountaineers behind them to take the next steps.
They later learned the other teams had done only what they could without risking their own objectives. McCoy never knew whether the sadhu lived or died.
As a partner at Morgan Stanley, McCoy was struck by parallels between the events on the mountain and the ethical behavior of corporations. In the period of introspection that followed, he wrote about the experience in a Harvard Business Review article, "The Parable of the Sadhu." He studied theology and corporate culture, using his business as a laboratory for new ideas. He taught a course at Stanford's Graduate School of Business (GSB) and made several generous gifts to the university, including a professorship in ethics at the GSB. In 2007, he wrote Living Into Leadership: A Journey in Ethics.
From the Heart...
He also met Debra Satz, a Stanford philosophy professor leading a small Ethics in Society honors program for undergraduates. Prior to the endowment gift, McCoy provided annual support for the existing Center on Ethics for five years, after which he was convinced Debra Satz was the right person to take the center to a new level.
With his family's deepening support and her dedication, Satz's work spreading ethics across the curriculum blossomed. In 2007, the undergraduate honors program became part of the center, which was then named in honor of the McCoys' historic gift. Matching funds ultimately raised the value of the gift to around $12 million.
The endowment has enabled the McCoy Center to significantly broaden its reach. Under Satz's leadership, it has partnered with other centers and departments throughout campus—from the Center for International Security and Cooperation to the Creative Writing Program—on interdisciplinary initiatives with considerable visibility.
In each of the past five years, the center has established an overarching theme and led a series of related courses and events that involve students and faculty all over campus in ethical issues: the Ethics of Food & the Environment (2007–2010), Ethics & War (2010–2012), and the Ethics of Wealth (2012–2013).
"Each series has left its mark on Stanford," says Satz, now the Marta Sutton Weeks Professor of Ethics in Society. For example, an Ethics & War course is now part of the Thinking Matters series for freshmen.
The center's expanded footprint also includes a thriving program for postdoctoral scholars in ethics. "Their work really helps to shape the field," says Satz.
...to the Heart of the Curriculum
Perhaps nothing could be more pervasive than the university's new requirement that all Stanford undergraduates take a course on "moral and ethical reasoning." Stanford's ability to support this imperative with multiple offerings is a testament to the McCoy Center's vibrancy, says Satz.
After five years, the center's expansion has fulfilled deeply personal goals for McCoy. Seeing a concern with values elevated to the level of a graduation requirement is a philanthropist's dream. But he emphasizes that program decisions come from the faculty. His role is limited by, well, his ethics.
"I wouldn’t endow the football coach and then tell him what plays to run," he says.
As for Satz, "I could not have asked for a better backer for what we do," she says. She pays McCoy, the moral mountaineer, the highest compliment an ethicist can offer:
"He really walks the talk."