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U. of I. plans national conference to explore economic crisis

Gretchen Winter

Gretchen Winter, the director of the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society, is planning a national conference that would assemble top business experts to examine causes of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression and explore policy solutions.

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4/27/2009 | Jan Dennis, Business & Law Editor | 217-333-0568; jdennis@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – A budding push by the University of Illinois to mold responsible business leaders will also try to trace the roots of an epic financial meltdown that has withered the U.S. economy.

The Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society plans a national conference that would assemble top business experts to examine causes of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression and explore policy solutions.

“We’ve seen a huge collapse of institutions, organizations and government agencies that were supposed to be exercising some level of oversight,” said Gretchen Winter, the director of the year-and-a-half-old center, which is part of the U. of I. College of Business. “So we need to find out what went wrong, what can be done to fix it and how to keep it from happening again.”

A broad, scholarly review could help guide President Obama as his fledgling administration seeks to halt the downturn and implement regulatory reforms to ward off future crises, said Winter, whose center was started to educate future business leaders about responsibility and accountability.

She says the center’s mission is a perfect fit with the president’s inaugural call for a new era of responsibility, a mantra that has punctuated Obama’s ongoing efforts to reverse the lingering economic slide.

“Given that our mission is professional responsibility and given that the president stresses responsibility, there are a lot of consistencies we would like to bring together,” Winter said. “We kept landing on a conference as the answer, looking at what happened so we don’t repeat it and how regulation should work compared to how it did work.”

The conference would bring together experts from the U. of I.’s nationally ranked College of Business, along with other universities and private industry, she said.

“The whole idea of the center was to have a national impact, spreading education about responsibility beyond just our campus,” Winter said.

The center’s efforts to promote workplace responsibility have already expanded to other universities since it was founded in 2006 through a $4 million settlement in the United States District Court, Northern District of Illinois, and another $4 million grant from the Deloitte Foundation.

More than a dozen professors from across the country have registered to use a just-released instructional DVD created by the center that teaches auditor independence, Winter said.

“It’s easy to tell accounting students to be independent, but what does that really mean?” she said. “These materials take that common concept and fill it out, with specific guidance and examples that teach students how independence really works as part of their new professional responsibilities.”

The center also partnered with the U. of I. College of Medicine to create a continuing education course for physicians and other health-care providers that promotes professional responsibility and transparency with patients in cases involving medical error.

Dr. Anne Gunderson, principal investigator for the new course, says the classes promote values such as truth, justice and honesty that “lay the foundation for the ethical paradigm of truth telling – transparency – in clinical practice as it relates to medical errors.”

She says legal, business, medical ethics and education experts were consulted to ensure that the course reflects the ethical, professional and societal responsibilities of the U.S. health-care system.

Among other things, the course encourages doctors to respond honestly when mistakes are made rather than staking out a legal defense, Winter said.

“Lawyers have conditioned doctors to deny mistakes occurred, even though they did,” Winter said. “That’s got to stop. This is not about carving out your legal position. It’s about creating a moral and ethical relationship where doctors do the right thing.”

The center also has created a required Business 101 course for all incoming freshmen in the College of Business, with back-to-basics training in ethics, people skills and social awareness to instill professional responsibility that will guide students through their careers.

“That’s the ultimate measure – how well our graduates perform in real-world scenarios where they are faced with ethical dilemmas,” she said. “We hope the way balances are struck in the future is different than the way those balances have been struck based on what you’re reading in newspapers over the last five months.”

Editor's note: To contact Gretchen Winter, call 312-575-7952.
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