2006: Sharon Hahs, SIUE Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, "Thinking about Integrity"

Thinking About Integrity
Sharon Hahs
A Speech to SIUE PKP Initiates
Phi Kappa Phi Induction Ceremony
March 17, 2006
Good evening, and thank you for inviting me to speak with you on this wonderful occasion. I am
so proud of each of you for your academic excellence. Congratulations! Your selection to
become Phi Kappa Phi members, as Dr. Ho has stated, has been based on superior academic
achievement, supported by good character. So as we celebrate academic that achievement, it is
fitting that we pause to reflect on good character as well, since, ideally, they are inextricably
linked. Thus I have chosen this evening the topic of “Thinking about Integrity.”
To begin, I pulled off the shelf my Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 5th edition. Under integrity
there are three definitions:
1. State or quality of being complete, undivided, or unbroken; entirety.
2. Unimpaired state; soundness; purity.
3. Moral soundness; honesty; uprightness.
(It comes from the concept of “to integrate”—to form into a whole; to unite or become united so
as to form a complete or perfect whole; to unify)
However, I must confess that Webster’s Collegiate, 5th Edition, was published in 1939 [it is the
dictionary my mother took to college]. So, for balance, I went to the Internet and checked the
English and Oxford abbreviated dictionaries for two more sets of definitions. The first set:
1. firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values: incorruptibility
2. an unimpaired condition: soundness
3. the quality or state of being complete or undivided: completeness
And the second set:
1. quality or state of being complete; unbroken condition; wholeness; entirety
2. the quality or state of being unimpaired; perfect condition; soundness
3. the quality or state of being of sound moral principle; uprightness, honesty, and sincerity
In the end, the definitions are quite similar, whether from 1939 or 2006, but perhaps the
redundancy can help to anchor us in thinking about integrity.
I would suggest to you that we spend our lives refining and strengthening our personal integrity.
It is interesting and perhaps appropriate that while integrity is a value many of us may grasp
intuitively, it is difficult to pin down. It has attributes, like honesty, but no obvious single
synonym. It is broader and deeper than honesty; it is a core value. Being a core value, it is not
limited to the educated. It is basic to the human condition, and something we look for in
everyone—the professor who grades your papers, the cashier who makes change on your
I mentioned honesty as an attribute—we might think of some other attributes. Another one
would be the commitment to doing the right thing, even when it’s difficult. If you think about it,
most times—the right thing is obvious and uncontroversial—it is easy to do. There are also times
when the right thing is obvious, but difficult. And then integrity requires courage, another
attribute. There are even times when what is right is not known and may in fact be unknowable.
This engages the practical application of the Phi Kappa Phi commitment to the love of learning.
As a scientist I believe that before you offer a solution, you collect the data, you engage in the
process of learning.
As most of the definitions and attributes suggest, integrity is more often used as a moral concept.
But there is another use of the word that is delightfully different, yet completely consistent—that
of structural soundness, physical integrity.
Last Friday (March 10) ABC News did its regular Friday feature, “Person of the Week.” It told
the story of a young American woman, Elizabeth Hausler who decided after 9-11 to apply her
Ph.D. in engineering to the task of helping people. She studied low-cost earthquake-resistant
housing. After the tsunami she went to one of the most devastated areas, the province of Banda
Aceh in Indonesia. The goal was to teach Indonesians who live on a fault line to build strong,
simple houses with the structural integrity to withstand an earthquake. She built the houses
herself, teaching and applying lessons in reinforced concrete and selection of materials. After
awhile she asked her father, a bricklayer, to join her to share his skills with the people of Banda
Aceh. She was working on her 11th house when the story was filmed. They weren’t pretty
houses, but they were sound—houses people can rely on, structures with integrity.
I used the word integrity to describe Dr. Hausler’s buildings and to illustrate that use of the term.
I suspect that if we knew her better we would associate the word not just with the buildings but
with the builder. Good people do good things.
So integrity is all of these things—definitions, descriptors, attributes, and more; integrity is a
complex concept. I’d like to tell another story. This one is taken from an article by Katherine
Boo in the Feb. 6, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. It is entitled, “Swamp Nurse: What is the best
hope for the first child of a poor mother?”
The article is about the Nurse-Family Partnership, a state program to improve the prospects of
what are labeled as destitute babies. The author accompanies a nurse into the swamps of
Louisiana, as she visits young women who are pregnant or have young children. The author also
tells us about the individual who created this program 28 years ago. He is a developmental
psychologist named David Olds. In his youth he worked at an inner city day care; he drew on his
experiences and his education to develop an approach to prevention. His premise was that rescue
begins before birth, and the approach was that a low-income young woman who might be
suspicious of government agents or social workers would trust a nurse and allow her access to
her home, where she could serve in the role of a professional nurturer. The program started as a
grant-supported pilot. Dr. Olds conducted random assignment evaluation, among the most
strenuous tests of a social program’s effect, and found more improvement than expected. For
example, there was less child abuse in the pilot program than in the control group, and four years
later, more mothers were employed and in stable relationships. Other pilots showed other gains,
such as greater vocabularies, fewer mental health problems, higher IQs. The mothers had fewer
subsequent children and longer spaces between them. And the programs were cost-effective.
However, oftentimes the early optimism surrounding programs meant to help poor children is
dispelled by rigorous assessments that come later. Children may make startling intellectual and
functional gains in a model program, but those gains tend to vanish when the children move on
to communities’ less hospitable institutions—this is called fade-out. David Olds’ work, longterm, seemed to defy this regressive trend. Peer reviewed publications, such as the Journal of the
American Medical Association agreed. However, the author (Ms. Boo) suggested to Dr. Olds
that in selecting the method to evaluate results, he was essentially grading his own work. Dr.
Olds accepted the challenge. Applying seven different evaluation methodologies he re-calculated
his data. In doing so he clearly realized that he risked undercutting his life’s work. A few of his
conclusions did not hold up, but many of them did. The basic conclusion Olds had drawn that his
nurse visitor program improved the futures of children and their mothers, was corroborated by
the additional analyses and is now about as solid as findings can be when the subject is social
policy’s impact on human behavior.
The focus of the article is on the success of the nurse-visitor program, but the article is also about
David Olds and his love of learning, his commitment to children, his willingness to put his life’s
work on the line to establish the efficacy of his approach and the validity of his findings. It is
about his integrity. There are children who will never know his name who will live a better life
because of David Olds. And, if the results are more important to him than the recognition, that,
too, is integrity.
Let me suggest one more way of thinking about integrity —what might be called “consistency of
self.” A person of integrity would be the same person at work and at home, with colleagues,
friends, or family. He or she holds a basic set of values and a consistent world view—a way of
being. Imagine for a moment your own funeral. What will people say about you? What will
people who knew you—people who are strangers to each other whose only thing in common is
knowing you—what will they say about you? Would the stories sound alike? Would they
describe a person that you would respect and admire? I suspect childhood friends, college
professors, her father, and villagers in Banda Aceh might say the same things about Elizabeth
Abraham Lincoln once said: “I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the
end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall
at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me.” Essentially, Lincoln was
saying “be your own best friend.” One could add--Choose your friends wisely. The house with
integrity may not be the most attractive or most popular model. Those who choose those qualities
over structural integrity leave themselves vulnerable to the next tsunami—and life is filled with
Lincoln is one of our heroes—and we look to our heroes in developing our own sense of
integrity. We expect integrity, we demand it, in our leaders. You will soon be the leaders, and the
role models—for your friends, your colleagues, your children and, ideally, even your
adversaries. As you prepare to become members of Phi Kappa Phi, look to the motto, “let the
love of learning rule humanity.” Learning is our surest guide to making wise choices. Use that
love of learning to pursue a more complete and well-developed sense of integrity. Unlike
honesty or courage which have adjectives which may be applied to people with those qualities—
an honest person, a courageous person—integrity sits out there as a noun. It is a goal. In the end
we look for its definition in the people we know. So search it out for yourself, and strive to
become the example others use when they try to define the term. It will take awhile; and, in fact,
it should take a lifetime.