Studio portrait of Opus College of Business faculty member Dawn Elm. Taken September 18, 2009 for B Magazine.

2015 Faculty Service Award: Dawn Elm, Ph.D.

On Friday, May 8, Dawn Elm, Ph.D., a professor in the Opus College of Business Department of Ethics and Business Law, was awarded the Faculty Service Award. This award is presented to a faculty member who has shown an exceptional record of service achievements and contributions to the college.

Professor Elm teaches in the areas of business ethics, strategy, leadership and corporate governance and has been a faculty member at the University of St. Thomas for 25 years. Before coming to the university, she worked in product development with the Procter & Gamble Company in Cincinnati, Ohio. Elm is widely published in the field of business ethics and was the recipient of the University of St. Thomas Excellence in Business Ethics award in 2002. Her current work involves improving ethical decision making in business, the impact of social media on privacy valuation and the integration of aesthetics and business ethics. She’s served as an independent director in the banking and construction industries on public, private and family business boards as well as on non-profit boards in the Twin Cities area.

We asked Professor Elm to share some of her thoughts on business and ethics, what makes a supportive and successful learning environment and what makes the Opus College of Business different from other business schools.

You started out in the field of chemical engineering and worked for Procter & Gamble in product development. What led to you pursue a Ph.D. in strategic management and organization and to teaching?

I didn't really want to be a VP of product development at P&G, so I started asking about other career opportunities with the company. One of the conversations was with the organizational development group (who worked on changing the organizational structure and work processes). They told me they'd love to have me, but I'd need to get a Ph.D. in organizational development. So, I started looking for Ph.D. programs in OD, which were primarily in business schools. I was accepted to the program at the University of Minnesota and serendipitously had my first meetings with a very well-known and respected faculty member who worked in business ethics. I found I had a passion for ethics and justice in business and I went on from there.

Teaching was a natural part of the educational process in the doctoral program and I found that I loved being able to impact the lives of undergraduate students in a positive way. That led me to a career in academics rather than my original plan to return to P&G.

Your current work involves ethics and improving ethical decision making in business. In your opinion, is it possible to be both ethical in business and successful?

In my opinion, it’s not just possible to be both ethical and successful, it’s crucial to be ethical in order to be successful. Business in today's world of rapid change and widely available information requires that our business leaders are doing the ethical thing in accomplishing business goals. At the same time, trust in the integrity of business has been eroded so severely that ethical leadership and behavior is critical to restoring faith in business. Self-interested behaviors in the name of profits alone are easily recognized and communicated to the community and negatively impact the reputation (and therefore, business) of the company. To be successful today and in the future, businesses will need to seriously consider the relationships they have with all of their stakeholders to build trust and legitimately achieve outcomes that meet their needs and those of society.

What do you find most interesting about the area of business ethics today?

What I find most interesting (and frightening) about the area of business ethics today is the scope of the ethical issues we are dealing with in the practice of business. There are major ethical issues associated with the emerging sharing economy as a means of doing business, the use of big data to create healthcare solutions and the loss of privacy, the rapidly increasing use of social media in business and our society and the decline of face-to-face human interaction. The issues today are related to major societal changes around the world, not just individual or organizational activities.

You’ve been a faculty member at St. Thomas for 25 years. What would you say is your main goal when it comes to teaching?

That's easy. My main goal for teaching is to get my students to broaden their thinking and to critically evaluate the decisions they are making as business professionals. I don't have aspirations that I can make all of my students the most ethical people in the world, but I think I can get them to open their minds and consider the ethical and social ramifications of their behavior and their lives. Even a small change is a start to creating a critical mass of ethical business leaders in the future.

The Faculty Service Award is presented to a faculty member who has an exceptional record of service achievements and contributions to the college. How do you personally define success as an educator? What do you consider some of your greatest achievements in serving this community of faculty and students?

Students who use their whole mind to consider their career and life choices, their relationships to others, and their commitment to society is a gold star in my book. I think my greatest achievements in serving the UST, OCB, and larger academic community are those that have allowed my fellow faculty members and students to believe that there is more to work than just the day-to-day activities of their jobs. If we believe in the value of the institutions we are part of, then we have a duty to help support those institutions and the communities that make them up. That means, simply, making the world a better place. To do that, you need to be willing to make a commitment to the common good and just follow through.

What’s the best thing about the Opus College of Business – how does it stand out or differentiate itself from other business schools right now?

The biggest differentiator for OCB right now is twofold. First, we are a community that is unmatched anywhere regarding our warm and supportive culture. We don't have members who actively attempt to create discord; we genuinely like each other and collaborate together to make sure our students have an experience that can't be found at another business school. Second, we are very well known and admired for our focus on ethics and values, entrepreneurship, innovation in our educational activities. It's not just lip service at OCB, it's the real thing. That's hard to come by and even harder to duplicate.