Father Edward Malloy, president emeritus of Notre Dame and a member of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees, gave these remarks at the Oct. 18 dedication of McNeely Hall.
I have met some of the richest and poorest people in the world. I have engaged people of power, presidents of countries and titans of industry. I have visited people in jail who have committed horrible crimes, and I have been exposed to a broad cross-section of humanity. Furthermore, I have read many biographies and memoirs of people characterized and accepted as great in anybody’s terms.
All of that has led me to become curious about what constitutes greatness: why we remember someone, no matter what their walk of life, set of circumstances or time in history, as having made a distinctive and great contribution. As far as I can figure it out, it has something to do with character.
To be a person of character is to have attributes that seem reliably good over time. The question is whether, in a business school or in any other academic branch of a university, you can teach character. My answer is you can’t teach it, but you can mold it. You can create circumstances in which individuals entrusted to your care have a chance to be great according to their God-given talent.
For example, you can try to foster circumstances in which students learn good judgment: not simply being a prisoner of facts but taking a broad set of circumstances into account. Having a sense of history, an alert antenna to where we are today and a projection into the future so we can gauge what results might come from their exercise of good judgment.
You also can help students participate in circumstances of fairness: not simply in one-to-one relationships or in contractual terms, but also in networks that make a difference. To have a sense of responsibility for more than what meets the eye. To know the conditions under which some people operate out of necessity. To recognize what it means to be in circumstances of privilege.
And finally, that students have a sense of discipline. Recognize there is, if you want to be a leader, a relationship between your lifestyle and the judgments you make. You can have credibility. If people see that relative to the good things of this world, you can laugh. You can have a sense of perspective. You can see how it all fits together.
This wonderful facility – and the faculty who will work within it and the students entrusted to their care – needs to be a place where character can be promoted. Those qualities that I identified have other names: like prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance – the so-called cardinal virtues. It goes under the presumption that if we want to turn out leaders of character, we need to foster certain attributes and prevailing values in and out of the classroom.
My second point has to do with accountability. We know society has seen a hemorrhaging of respect and confidence both in the business enterprise and in the regulatory enterprise. Who’s watching the watchers? How can we restore trust in corporate life? In the relationship between boards and those that they oversee? In the relationship between management and the workforce? In the relationship between institutions and the broader society that they work within and, in the end, serve?
Accountability starts early, in the relationship between parents and children, and it goes on in academic environments. Holding people accountable means you give grades for work actually done. You recognize the difference in quality. The faculty, in turn, are evaluated by their students. Being open to that kind of feedback allows for a level of confidence that what goes on in an academic environment will carry over into the future.
Sometimes the dynamics in accountability are not easy to abide, and yet we’ve found wisdom in the expectation that at the end of life, we’ll be held accountable for the way we lived in this world. That for every gift and every opportunity, great things are expected by the God who brought us into existence. That goodness will be rewarded and evil will be punished. Insofar as we know our own human limitations, it means we never should grow complacent or content. We need to preserve the capacity to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Forgive me.”
So as I have met people in various walks of life, and as I think about the responsibility of great universities, it seems to me there’s no substitute for character, and that in order to regain the confidence of the broader society around us, we need good and reliable systems of accountability.
It needs to start young. It needs to take place regularly in academic environments. And it needs to continue for the rest of our lives. If we have it, and if we can turn it out, this will be a much better world than the one that we inherited. I’m confident the University of St. Thomas is the kind of place – and McNeely Hall is the wonderful environment – in which these goals can be pursued.