Law Professor Stresses Civility, Integrity: ‘It’s the Right Thing to Do’

Dr. Noah Feldman
February 17, 2017

The message of the annual Richard W. Blackburn Endowed Lecture on Civility and Integrity seemed more apt than ever Thursday as Noah Feldman, a Harvard Law School professor, made his case for how important those two qualities are.

Dr. Feldman, who specializes in constitutional studies and advised the Iraqi Governing Council on drafting an interim constitution, discussed civility and integrity through the lens of his experiences in “constitutional deal-making.”

He told a group of primarily George Washington University School of Business students that he realized on election night last year: “It’s all about the Constitution now.”

Dr. Feldman didn’t just mean from the perspective that there will be arguments regarding the constitutionality of certain decisions—there always will be, regardless of who is president.

He also meant, he said, that in a constitutional system of democracy, there is always a framework for continued discussion. And that framework can’t be forgotten.

“Our entire capacity as a republic now depends, in a genuinely future-oriented way, on whether we are, in fact, truly capable of continuing the process of civic engagement, civil conversation, even at a moment when the country is deeply polarized,” he said.

Free speech in debating, followed by voting, followed by more debating—these are the things, Dr. Feldman said, that “allow you to keep going” and prevent the country from deteriorating to the point of civil war.

And during this process, the need to engage civilly and maintain integrity is an ethical duty, he said. While these two qualities aren’t required by the First Amendment—uncivil speech is protected just as much as civil speech, he said—students aren’t getting anywhere without them, especially when it comes to their professional lives and the business decisions they will inevitably be responsible for making in their careers.

“Civility and integrity are among the most useful values for getting you someplace that you could possibly imagine,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

The Richard W. Blackburn Lecture was established through a generous endowment gift from former GW Trustee Richard Blackburn to GWSB. The endowment underwrites an annual distinguished lecture by a world-recognized business leader addressing themes related to the importance of civility in discourse and integrity in business conduct.

Mr. Blackburn implored students in his remarks Thursday that “we never ever turn our back on the importance of being civil to each other and being people of integrity.”

He also lamented instances of people disagreeing and talking over each other, fighting to be loudest.

“Words matter. Words hurt. And words lift,” he told students.

The lecture serves as a capstone event for undergraduate business students that underscores both the lessons of the curriculum and the legacy of George Washington’s morals. In addition to the formal lecture, the event engages students in a discussion about the impact of civility and integrity in business relations and discourse within the foundation of their education.

After Dr. Feldman’s lecture, students engaged in a discussion with him, asking for advice on how to respond in situations where one’s civility is not matched by the person on the other side.

“We believe this lecture has become a really important part of who we are in the business school,” GWSB Dean Linda Livingstone said.

George Washington President Steven Knapp said Mr. Blackburn personifies the titular qualities of his endowed lecture.

“It really is an extraordinary series,” Dr. Knapp said.