Honesty Is Still the Best Policy - Y Magazine
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Honesty Is Still the Best Policy

Elaine Englehardt’s passion for ethics has never abated since she discovered the field as a young BYU graduate student. Photo by Bradley Slade.

It was late 2001 and the Enron scandal weighed heavily in the national consciousness. Whistleblowers were taking heat from defrauded investors, employees stood agog while their retirements evaporated, and journalists sought out experts to explain the ethical lapses that led to one of the biggest corporate bankruptcies in history.

Who did they turn to? An unlikely source—Utah Valley State College, where Elaine Eliason Englehardt (BA ’74, MA ’84) had been working for years to bring ethics to the public conversation. The Washington Times, in describing Englehardt’s contributions amid the clamor for better business and corporate ethics, wrote that her work had “blossomed into a national phenomenon.” Englehardt, now a distinguished professor of ethics, philosophy, and communications at Utah Valley University, understood how poor or unethical corporate practices can become institutional “blind spots” that are hard to recognize and organizationally difficult to challenge—and how to adjust policies and practices in order to ensure honesty, fairness, and transparency.

Although she publishes work in many fields, Englehardt says Enron bolstered her interest in business and organizational ethics. “My late husband, Kirk, was a financial planner. As a person who recommended investments and companies to clients, the Enron scandal in particular deeply shocked him—just stunned him. How could that happen? And who could be trusted?”

Her passion began at BYU. Englehardt studied journalism as an undergraduate, and she expected to become a freelance writer while raising her children. But when she returned to BYU to pursue a graduate degree in communication, she was introduced to ethical theory and found herself gravitating toward ethics. Not long after, as a teacher at Utah Technical College (an early iteration of Utah Valley University), she realized she wanted to help students not only do something, but also learn how to be someone. “Who we are has everything to do with our choices and our morality,” she says.

“Ethics is a study of morality and moral behavior,” says Englehardt. “It is a way to use rational justification, which is different from a belief system or testimony.” Ethics has allowed her to apply theory and argumentation to real-world moral dilemmas. Her work involves asking questions, creating new mental models, and writing and thinking—doing “the hard work of making arguments and providing rational justifications for an ethical position.”

Englehardt notes that people think of ethics in relation to corporate governance and scientific research, but really, she says “ethics are part of daily life, because living is about making choices. And the first rule of ethics is to not harm others. The second is to try to do good for others.” She points out that “honesty and fairness are fundamental to ethical behavior, and lying is a fundamental harm.”

To combine personal and professional ethical thinking, Englehardt founded UVU’s Ethics Across the Curriculum program and helped create an interdisciplinary ethics course required of all students. As a tribute to the program, Englehardt earned the national Theodore M. Hesburgh Award.

Englehardt recalls those early classes. “I was surprised when some students pushed back when I brought up topics such as euthanasia or capital punishment. They wanted to discuss only one point of view,” she says. “To strengthen the fledgling class, I brought in recognized experts to help teach, and we [UVU professors] became more comfortable as we also learned at the feet of the specialists.” As a result, she says, her students learned to be responsible for forming and justifying their own points of view.

In 2003 Englehardt’s happy life turned inside out when her husband died from cancer. “Kirk was truly the inspiration in my life,” she reflects. In his honor, UVU helped her establish the Kirk Englehardt Business Ethics Award, sponsored by the Woodbury School of Business and the Center for the Study of Ethics. Englehardt eventually married Michael Pritchard, a professor and codirector of the Center for the Study of Ethics in Society at Western Michigan University.

Englehardt’s contributions to UVU, including serving as a vice president, span the school’s transformation from a technical college to a university. She says becoming one of the nation’s ethics specialists has changed her, too, because she turns her ethical lens on herself. “I have become a better person,” she says. “I am a kinder, more reasoned, and patient human being.”