Contemporary Ethical Issues

Polytechnic School

Pasadena, California

Contemporary Ethical Issues is a semester-long senior seminar offered by Greg Feldmeth at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, California.  Students probe ethical issues by reading news sources, in addition to articles and essays, analyzing case studies, interacting with guest speakers, viewing films, writing papers, and participating in class discussions.

Ethics quotation of the week:
John Wooden on Char
acter & Reputation

‎"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation,
 because you character is what your really are; your reputation is merely what others think you are".

Eric Reeves is Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He has spent the past seven years working full-time as a Sudan researcher and analyst, publishing extensively both in the US and internationally. He spoke of his personal journey and passion to help in Sudan and noted the difficulty the U.S. will face in creating a "coalition of the willing" following our Iraqi involvement. Here's an op-ed piece he wrote for The Washington Post.

Pat Haden, father of four Poly alums and recently appointed athletic director at the University of Southern California, quarterbacked the most famous comeback in USC history against Notre Dame in a 55-24 victory. Haden graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, attended Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and played professional football for the Los Angeles Rams before becoming an attorney. Haden also enjoyed a career as a sports broadcaster for NBC and served as a trustee for both Poly and USC. He spoke to students about the influence of money in college athletics, particularly football, and the pressures placed on student-athletes.

Louis Zamperini (now 94 years old) was a world-class long distance runner who finished 8th in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He enrolled in USC, then joined the Air Force in 1940. Louis was shot down in the South Pacific and spent 47 days on a life-raft before being the Japanese. He spent two more years in a Japanese concentration camp before being released. He spoke to the class about his experiences and his journey to Japan to forgive his prison guards.

Dan Mazur visited class on March 23rd to discuss his experiences as a Mount Everest guide, specifically focusing on his life-saving rescue of Lincoln Hall in May 2006. Hall, an Australian climber, had been abandoned and left for dead by his own team. Dan explained the choices he made on that climb and other ethical issues that mountain-climbers face.

Larry Wilson, city editor of The Pasadena Star-News, discussed the ethical dilemmas journalists face in the publication of a newspaper. He shared the case of a decision to publish a drug conviction of a local community leader, despite the fact that it happened years ago.

Caltech astronomer Mike Brown congratulated a Spanish astronomer on his discovery of a planet-sized object Brown and his colleagues had been tracking for months. He then found out the Spaniard may have "eavesdropped" on Brown's telescope logs. Read about it in the New York Times article.

Mike Babcock '48, former headmaster, is a member of the Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education. Mike explained the ethical dimensions of public school management, particularly in the area of financing.

Erin Sones Borchard, a Polytechnic alumna and national champion diver at Stanford, described the pressures of competitive sports and the role of unethical coaches.

Tim McGuire, former editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and president of the Newspaper Editors of America, challenged the class with the theme "do not deceive."

Mary Ayala, second from right, and her husband Abe faced the almost certain death of their 19-year-old daughter Anissa in 1990 from leukemia unless a suitable bone marrow donor could be found. The Ayalas decided to try a longshot and have another child who could serve as a donor. Abe needed to have a vasectomy reversed. Mary was 43 years old, so a pregnancy had risks. The baby, Marissa, had only a one-in-four chance to be a match. Yet the Ayalas beat the odds on all counts. A successful transplant was performed when Marissa was 14 months old. Both girls are healthy today. Mrs. Ayala and the class discussed her family situation and the ethical issues involved.

Hodding Carter III, former State Department under-secretary, Emmy-award winning journalist, and professor recounted his upbringing in 1950s Mississippi, where the murder of three civil rights workers changed his perspective on race relations, and his role in presenting the U.S. position during the Iran hostage crisis during the Carter Administration.

Glen Stassen, professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Seminary, shared the principles of Just Peacemaking, an alternative to the just war and pacifist approaches to conflict. Dr. Stassen identified 10 practices of just peacemaking and described the role of U.S. foreign policy in the current situation in the Middle East.

Paul Haaga, executive vice-president of the Capital Group,
 led a class discussion of ethical issues in the current economic crisis.

Joe Borchard, first-round draft choice of the Chicago White Sox and now switch-hitting right fielder in the San Francisco Giants organization, discussed the influence of money and steroids in baseball.

Mike Farrell, movie and television actor and president of Death Penalty Focus, is deeply opposed to capital punishment on moral and practical grounds. He noted that the cost of executing a prisoner was much greater than life without the benefit of parole. He called the death penalty a barbaric practice unsuited to 21st Century civilization.

Saira Mohamed, Poly '96 was clerk to Judge Kim Wardlaw of the 9th Federal Circuit Court from 2005 to 2006. She spoke to the class about capital punishment issues. Saira, formerly Senior Advisor to the U.S. Special Envoy for Sudan and Attorney-Adviser for human rights and refugees in the U.S. Department of State, is now a professor at University of California Berkeley's Boalt Hall.

California State Senator Jack Scott (D-Altadena) traced his career path from education to politics, described the ethical tensions present in a politican's life, discussed gerrymandering and its impact, and encouraged the students to consider public service as a career option.

Jordan Wallens, Poly '90, lost his older brother Blake in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11. He wrote a book, Gridchronic, detailing his cross-country journey to college football Meccas and sharing his memories of Blake. Jordan is currently vice-president of Lincoln Financial. His talk with the class focused on personal ethics and his own life choices.

Jim and Jamie Dutcher lived for six years with the Sawtooth Pack of wolves in Idano and have produced Emmy-Award-winning documentaries. They shared their experiences and the ethical dimensions of human-wolf interaction.

Alan Elsner, Reuters news correspondent, has written about a number of topics, including America's prisons and the Holocaust. He is also the reporter responsible for this famous exchange with a State Department spokesperson during the 1994 Rwanda crisis:

Elsner: How would you describe the events taking place in Rwanda?
Shelly: Based on the evidence we have seen from observations on the ground, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda.
Elsner: What's the difference between "acts of genocide" and "genocide"?
Shelly: Well, I think ... as you know, there's a legal definition of this ... clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label ... But as to the distinctions between the words, we're trying to call what we have seen so far as best as we can; and based, again, on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.
Elsner: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide? (Quoted in Hotel Rwanda)
Shelly: Alan, that's just not a question that I'm in a position to answer.

Mia Rondinella, Poly '92, vice-president for business planning and development at Walt Disney Media Network, shared her experience in the corporate entertainment world.

Alison Powell of Death Penalty Focus led the class in an examination of the ethical aspects of capital punishment.


Ray Cortines, retired LAUSD superintendent of schools and NY city chancellor, spoke about the challenges of public education

Julie Zauszner, Ray Cortines, author of Conning Harvard, told the story of Adam Wheeler, who lied his way into Harvard.

Ethics doesn't mean a thing until it costs you something...
In the 1925 U.S. Open, Bobby Jones insisted on penalizing himself because of a tiny movement of his ball that not even his caddie observed. Upon being congratulated for his action, Jones was indignant.

"There is only one way to play the game," he said. "You might as well praise a man for not robbing a bank."

Jones lost that Open title to Willie Macfarlane by a stroke.

Heinz Ethics in the Workplace Panel Series
The Heinz Series is designed to help students understand the ethical issues that confront individuals in their daily jobs.
Alums, parents, and guests share their experiences and then interact with students. All are invited.
Ethics in Architecture

Architects Liz Moule, Warren Techentin and Heather Kurze led a class discussion on the ethical issues involved in architecture, highlighting the tensions that come in balancing the desires of a client and aesthetics sensibilities, environmental issues, and contributing to the greater good.

Ethics in College Admissions

Charlene Liebau, independent college counselor and former director of Admissions, Occidental College and  California Institute of  Technology, Peter Hong, Los Angeles Times reporter who has covered education throughout his career
and Rick Bischoff, Caltech Director of Admissions
discussed the challenges universities and admissions officers face in the college application process.
Ethics & Psychology

Drs. Jeff Prater, Jay Wagener, and Linda Wagener discussed the limitations on psychological research because of  permission restrictions, the role of confidentiality when dealing with patients, and other dilemmas that they as psychologists face in their work.
Ethics & the Arts

Peter Mendenhall, Tina Petra, and Ari Wiseman
Ethics & Hollywood

Alec Berg '87, Ted Griffin '89 and Marlee Grandalski
Ethics and Medicine

Doctors Bo Riewerts, Paul Helfgott, and
Shannon Thyne described the ethical struggles
they face in day-to-day life as physicians.