Fitting ideals in a briefcase? It's workable

Promise: The Graduation Pledge Alliance has students vowing to remember ethical and social issues on the job.

May 28, 2000|By Colman McCarthy

AT COLLEGE commencements this spring, graduates face few worries about jobs. Employment opportunities are robust. Instead of the traditional job hunt, there is the student hunt: Recruiters from major U.S. firms and organizations have been on campuses since September, in stakeouts for workers, with many graduates assured starting salaries higher than those of the professors they are leaving behind.

Amid the lures of quick bucks are a few grads whose heads and hearts are saying, "not so fast," and then asking questions: What are the ethics of my potential employers? How are their products or services benefiting society, if at all? What is the employer's record on such issues as antitrust, health and safety, age, race, sex and gender discrimination, pollution and animal testing? In the company's theology of capitalism, is worshiping the dollar-god the sole article of faith?

The focus of these concerns on whether the work world can be a moral world has an outlet: the Graduation Pledge Alliance (GPA). As nationally organized in 1996 by the Peace Studies Institute at Manchester College in Indiana, the alliance asks graduating students to voluntarily pledge themselves to accept only conscience-friendly jobs and reject ones that are conscience-troubling. This spring, more than 30 colleges are promoting the fast-spreading pledge.

It reads: "I pledge to explore and take into account the social and environmental consequences of any job I consider and will try to improve these aspects of any organization for which I work." Professor Neil Wollman of Manchester College, a 1,000-student Church of the Brethren school that began the nation's first peace studies degree program in 1948, has seen some 60 percent of the senior classes since 1988 embrace the pledge. Students receive a wallet-sized card and a certificate on which the pledge is printed. For parents hankering for a midlife career change, the pledge is printed in the commencement program.

Wollman believes that the pledge goes to the core of a complete education: "Not only does it remind students of the ethical implications of the knowledge and training they received, but it can help lead to a socially conscious citizenry and a better world. And it can serve as a focal point for further consciousness-raising around campus."

Besides Manchester College, the nation's most vibrant program is at Harvard. Last year, 271 seniors filed past the statue of John Harvard in the commencement procession after taking the pledge 24 hours earlier during Class Day ceremonies. This spring, Sinead Walsh, '00, who will do human rights in India after graduation, was among the student leaders who organized three GPA panels for speakers whose careers are ideal-driven, not money-driven. These included workers from Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Grameen Foundation USA, Clean Water Action, and the Campus Green Vote.

To ward off dabblers and sunshine idealists, anyone taking the pledge - expected to be 10 percent of this year's graduates on June 8 - was required to attend at least one of the three panel discussions during the spring. These were titled: "Making a Difference," "Earning a Living, Sharing the Wealth" and "Building a Career, Building a Community."

Walsh, an English major who researched a pending report for Human Rights Watch on racial disparities in drug arrests, is anything but a corporation-basher chanting anti-capitalist slogans. "No matter where people work," she says, "there's so much they can do on the everyday level. I don't believe that a dichotomy exists in most careers that are not traditionally `public service.' It's possible to be a socially concerned person in those jobs."

Evidence of that came on May 16 when the 3M Co., a pillar of the Fortune 500 with $16 billion in annual revenues, announced that it would stop making most of its Scotchgard products due to their adverse environmental effects.

A week before 3M's positive shift in ethics, the Ford Motor Co. went the other way. CEO William C. Ford Jr., a Princeton alumnus, admitted that his company's sport utility vehicles cause serious safety and environmental problems. But production will not stop. Ford's SUVs reap huge profits.

To help college graduates choose conscientiously among the nation's 3Ms and Fords, the Graduation Pledge Alliance ( offers information ranging from questions for potential employers, to finding facts not covered in annual reports.

At American University in Washington, Mitchell Furlett, graduating as a pledge-taker, says that schools rarely address in substantial ways the ethical issue of where to work: "I realize that jobs are plentiful this year, but I've seen few that I can feel morally good about accepting. This pledge is helping change that."

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