Celebrating 100 Years: A Look Back in Our Club’s History on Ethics Symposium

Rotary Club of Madison-Centennial LogoOur History Sub-Committee continues to take a look back in our club’s rich history and is sharing highlights from the past century.  This week’s message is shared by committee member Jerry Thain:

Ethics LogoEthics Symposium Became One of Club’s Signature Events in the 21st Century

The earlier centennial blog posts dealt primarily with events of the Club in its first 75 years. While such “look backs” provide perspective for today, one of the Club’s major events was developed within the last 15 years and remains an ongoing cornerstone of Club outreach. What is now the annual Rotary Ethics Symposium for high school juniors in Dane County was developed by Melanie Ramey and other Club members beginning in 1999. The first such event was held in October 2000, and there has been one every academic year since then. The first ones were held in October, and the Symposium was held on days when meetings of teachers provided a non-school day for the Symposium. Notably, the schools soon recognized the academic value of the program and allowed students to attend it in lieu of school so the Rotary Ethics Symposium in recent years has been held in February or March. The first program was at the Concourse Hotel; lately the Monona Terrace Convention Center has been the venue.

Ethan Ecklund-ParaThe Rotary Ethics Symposium has been constantly evolving and continues to evolve in its particulars even today. However, it has always involved intensive looks at specific ethical problems by the students and a great deal of preparation and participation by a large number of Rotarians, a few of whom have been involved in every program held to date. Instead of an opening address by a noted scholar or professional specializing in ethics, which was the pattern in the first years, the Symposium now begins with the staging of an ethical problem pertinent to high school students by the First Wave Drama & Music group of the UW-Madison followed by discussion of that and then, as always, breakout sessions of the students into smaller groups that each deal with an ethical issue before returning to a plenary lunch and opportunity for feedback.

DSC00257The Rotary Ethics Symposium, acting in conjunction with academic specialists in ethics such as the Santa Clara University Center for Ethical Studies, developed an R.O.T.A.R.Y. framework for studying ethical dilemmas and five widely utilized but differing approaches to decide them. The emphasis has always been on advising students that there often is no single “right” answer to an ethical question and that different approaches may yield different results, even though both or all may be considered an ethical solution to the problem.

The R.O.T.A.R.Y. framework, in brief, is as follows: Recognize an ethical issue; Obtain pertinent information; Test alternative approaches from the various ethical perspectives; Act consistently with your best judgment; Reflect on your decision; Yield to your ethical judgments.

The Rotary Ethics Symposium now involves not only the volunteer activities of many Club members but also of non-members engaged in analysis of ethical problems in business and the professions, as well as Rotaract participants. Although it seems certain that fine-tuning will continue each year in an effort to continue to improve the program, it clearly has been a success from the perspectives of both students and Rotarians since its inception. Consider the reports in Club newsletters about the initial ethics symposium in 2000 and about the most recent one on March 1, 2013, attended by 213 students from 19 Dane County high schools.

There is every reason to believe that the Symposium will be a signal activity of the Club in its second century of “service above self.”

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