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Wake Forest conference tackles character and leadership development

Studying character and leadership is gaining increasing attention amid deep divisions in American politics and society. Under outgoing President Nathan Hatch, Wake Forest University is emerging as a leader in helping its students and the community at large be more thoughtful about ethical behavior.

Putting a spotlight on that effort, the university is hosting a virtual conference, “Character and the Professions,” on March 18-20. It will feature leading academic researchers from Stanford, Penn and other school as well as prominent leaders including General Electric CEO Larry Culp, former Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam and Dan Bryant, senior vice president for global public policy and government affairs at Walmart. Madeline Albright and Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretaries of State, will take part in a keynote session, in partnership with the Wake Forest Face to Face Speaker Forum,  on March 18 discussing leadership and character in public life

More than 900 people have already signed up for the free event, which originally had been planned for the Winston-Salem campus, pre-COVID-19. Going virtual will allow for a lot of international attendance.

The event is affiliated with Wake Forest’s Program for Leadership and Character and Oxford Project, which have developed in the last four years at Hatch’s initiative. He’s retiring on June 30 after leading the school since 2005. A history professor at Notre Dame University before he moved into administration, Hatch’s presidency has included a focus on character development and honoring the school’s motto, Pro Humanitate, or “for humanity.”

Backed by support from the Lilly Endowment and John Templeton and Kern Family foundations, the leadership program is an increasingly important contributor to Wake Forest’s business, divinity, law and medical schools.

“Higher education has historically been suspicious of conversations about character because it has sometimes felt patronizing and preachy,” says Kenneth Townsend, Wake Forest’s Director of Leadership and Character in the Professional Schools. “But it’s interesting that more people have been receptive to our work in recent years. A growing awareness of the importance of character seems in part to have been prompted by a recognition of the decline of character in public life. Character is not a partisan issue, however, and we are making sure to include Republicans, Democrats, and those in between and unaffiliated.

Understanding the importance of character and ethical behavior is becoming more important in an increasingly technological age when algorithms have replaced human functions in many instances, Townsend says..“Knowledge and skills can only take you so far.”

The legal industry requires prospective lawyers to pass a professional responsibility exam before one is eligible to take the bar exam. But Wake and other law schools “are trying to incorporate that there is more to being a lawyer than not being disbarred,” says Townsend, a graduate of Yale’s law and divinity schools who also teaches in Wake Forest’s Law School. “Rules can sometimes orient us to not going beneath a threshold rather than being the lawyer that we really want to be.”

Faculty across Wake Forest have embraced the initiative including a group of psychology and philosophy professors who have national reputations for their study of character development. “Wake Forest has a history of taking questions of character quite seriously,” Townsend says. “It was historically through the customs of the [Baptist] church. While the church no longer has a formal presence, our ethos has kept us focused on educating the whole person.”

For more information about the event, use this link.

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