Price School Participates in Next Generation Ethics Conference

May 30, 2019

Ali Abbas, Neely Center Director (Photo/Deirdre Flanagan)

By Matthew Kredell

USC Price Dean Jack H. Knott and Prof. Frank Zerunyan participated in a Next Generation Ethics Conference hosted April 26 by the USC Neely Center for Ethical Leadership and Decision Making.

Ali Abbas, director of the Neely Center, shared that the Keck School of Medicine recently joined the Marshall School of Business, Viterbi School of Engineering and Price School of Public Policy in housing the multidisciplinary Center that seeks to inspire and develop leaders dedicated to making informed, effective and ethical decisions.

“When you think today of ethical decision making and the intersections of the different areas, it makes for remarkable opportunities for research and expansion,” Abbas said. “Just think of the intersections of technology and medicine, of technology and public policy, of medicine and public policy, of business with medicine and public policy. It creates exciting opportunities.”

Ali Abbas, Dean Jack Knott (Photo/Deirdre Flanagan)

‘All public policy is really about ethics’

Knott stated that, in his view, all public policy is really about ethics. Value trade-offs underlie policy issues such as gun rights vs. mass shootings, border control vs. humanitarian treatment of refugees, healthcare spending on elderly vs. primary care for children and families, urban development vs. gentrification, or national debt to fund needs now vs. the next generation having fewer resources.

“As you can see, almost every public policy involves some kind of ethical-value tradeoff,” Knott said. “It’s really dealing with making choices among competing values as well as allocating resources among competing interests.”

Knott focused his comments on the ethics of process and decision making by policymakers in seven major areas:

  • Corruption: Private interests who want special benefits collude with government officials who want to gain financial or political support for reelection. In 2018, the U.S. dropped out of the top 20 least corrupt nations according to the Corruption Perceptions Index.
  • Rigging rules of the game: Political leaders seek to damage or weaken their opponents by tilting the playing field against their rivals. Gerrymandering and restrictive voting reform laws are two current concerns.
  • Capturing the referees: Regulatory agencies and judges tasked with investigating and punishing wrongdoing can be bought off or intimidated.
  • Creating false policy narratives for the purpose of gaining power: An example is the restriction on publishing of some scientific papers at the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Use of violence or force in pursuing policy goals: In domestic policy, the killing of unarmed, disproportionately African-American, people by the police is an important example.
  • Seeing political opponents as existential threats: Viewing political opponents as enemies leads to the extreme political polarization which characterizes the country today.

    Left-Right: Laura Mosqueda, Stacey R. Giwa, Jack Knott, Yannis Yortsos (Photo/Deirdre Flanagan)

Knott noted that the Price School is addressing these ethical issues through its centers, institutes, and individual faculty initiatives. The Bedrosian Center on Governance studies polarization to better understand its effects on the relationships between Congress and the bureaucracy; the Schwarzenegger Institute seeks to reform state laws to have independent commissions draw political districts; the California Civic Engagement Initiative looks to improve voting turnouts; and the Law Enforcement Advanced Development (LEAD) program at the Safe Communities Institute seeks to reduce the use of force in dealing with community and neighborhood issues.

“Our school was founded 90 years ago to address these ethical issues, and we’re continuing to address these important ethical issues today,” Knott said.

Facing ethical issues within University head-on

Keck Dean Laura Mosqueda stated that one way she has dealt with recent issues within her School was to give leadership a book called Return on Integrity: The New Definition of ROI and Why Leaders Need to Know It. Keck also is working with the Institute for Gender Partnership to launch a series of conversations about gender bias and sexual harassment.

Stacy R. Giwa, Chief Compliance Officer and Vice President of Ethics and Compliance at USC, addressed ethical issues at universities around admissions and the need for transparency.

“At universities, we have all these big global issues but we also just have everyday issues that are impacting a lot of people about who’s getting a foot in the door, who gets into higher education,” Giwa said. “Are we willing to take a step back when we have a problem and say here’s how we diagnose that problem and make a path forward versus simply stopping at fixing the one manifestation of that problem. If you know your process is broken and fix only the visible thing that someone has noticed, you may take credit for that fix but is that really ethical if you know that same thing could happen in 10 different areas?”

Left-Right: Randy Hill, Michael Taylor, Sharon Lloyd, Ken Fletcher, Frank Zerunyan (Photo/Deirdre Flanagan)

Mark Manley, director of the USC Office of Professionalism and Ethics, asserted it is the short-term goal of his office to see an increase of the number of complaints made at the University.

“I think an increase in the number of complaints that our office or other local offices and schools receive is an indication of an increased trust in the system that people can come forward and know their complaints and reports will be handled and treated fairly” Manley said. “Hopefully, over the long term, we will start to see stabilization and a slight decline in the number of reports and really a marked decrease in the number of formal investigations that come out of those reports. I think that will be indicative of a course correction, the enhancement of trust throughout our university community and hopefully addressing on a broader, global scale appropriate behavior and decorum in a workplace.”

Deans made recommendations to incoming USC President Carol L. Folt. Noting his direct contact with students through emails to open dialogues when there are difficult issues that arise around the university or the country, Knott suggested that it’s very important for the USC administration to be engaged with the campus community more broadly, including meeting with students, deans, faculty and staff. He said Folt already has committed to meeting with deans on a regular basis, which hasn’t happened since he came to USC in 2005.

“I felt my role in part was to help create the narrative on what is ethical, what is right, what are the values for our school,” Knott said. “The leadership needs to show that.”

Left-Right: Ken Fletcher and Frank Zerunyan (Photo/Deirdre Flanagan)

Panel focuses on ethical issues in society

Moderating a multidisciplinary panel discussing the role of public policy in the numerous ethical situations facing society, Zerunyan asked what was the most pressing ethical challenge in their respective disciplines.

Randy Hill, executive director of the Institute for Creative Technology, answered trust in artificial intelligence and autonomous systems. Michael Taylor, executive director of the Media Institute for Social Change, said corruption being so widespread in government, universities, religious institutions, corporations and the banking system.

USC Dornsife Prof. Sharon Lloyd said fully autonomous weapons systems. Kenneth Fletcher, former chief risk officer for the Transportation Security Administration, stressed the moral and ethical obligation to senior citizens balanced with the needs of educating our youth.

When it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), Zerunyan stressed the importance of human values system in developing AI.

“We need to have some sort of regulatory framework or law that actually puts this responsibility on AI producers,” Zerunyan said. “When we think about AI, my contribution to our upcoming Neely Center book on “Next-Generations Ethics,” is about the need to think very carefully about the overall public interest.” (Further images found here.)

Related faculty

  • Dean Jack H. Knott headshot

    Jack H. Knott

    C. Erwin and Ione L. Piper Chair and Professor

  • Frank Zerunyan headshot

    Frank V. Zerunyan

    Professor of the Practice of Governance
    Director, Executive Education
    Director of ROTC Programs