Ethical Insights From Former Governor Michael Dukakis

In Questrom professor James French’s MBA Global Ethics class, students were joined by former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis.

French’s Global Ethics class is a one-day intensive for first-year full-time MBA students, intended as a bookend to a three-day intensive that incoming full-time students attend during their first month on campus. The course allows students to continue to explore ethical issues throughout our global economy in a rational, pragmatic, and responsible manner.

The former three-term governor and 1988 Democratic nominee for president of the United States was engaging, humorous, and thought-provoking, sharing anecdotes from his time as governor and delving into the history of Massachusetts politics, the importance of involving rank and file employees in leadership decisions, and life in the public sector.

REMEMBER THAT WE’VE COME A LONG WAY. PROGRESS IS POSSIBLE.

“When I entered Massachusetts politics as a young state legislator in 1962, this state was one of the three or four most corrupt in the country,” he explains. “My first eight years as a legislator were basically just trying to clean the place up. I obviously had the opportunity during my 12 years as governor to do a lot more than that.”

“In 1975, when I was first elected governor, the unemployment rate in Massachusetts was over 12%,” he shares. “The state was in terrible shape financially—they were calling us the New Appalachia.” Thanks, in part, to Dukakis, that number fell to around 3% by 1988, in a period of economic growth dubbed the ‘Massachusetts Miracle.’ “While we’re all complaining about this, that, and the other thing,” he says, “we’ve still made enormous progress.”

CREATIVE SOLUTIONS ARE OUT THERE. KEEP SEARCHING.

Dukakis optimistically also gave the class an inside look into a couple of the many fascinating, innovative solutions to problems being taken by the government—across party lines.

“There’s an Indian-American congressman named Ro Khanna from California—a very smart guy. He’s working with a Republican congressman in Kentucky to recruit community college graduates who are coders to work with Silicon Valley companies that can’t find enough coders in California. The folks in Kentucky are working remotely and doing extremely well. What a great match, don’t you think?” Dukakis asked the class.

Another example Dukakis shared comes out of Wyoming, where workers in a dying industry are being given the opportunity to continue working—albeit in a different capacity. “Wyoming is the leading coal mining state in America. But coal miners in Wyoming get laid off because coal itself is dying. Instead, they’re being hired by wind generation companies who are turning these laid-off miners into wind technicians.” In fact, wind turbine technician is one of the fastest growing jobs in the country, changing the narrative of many lives. “The only qualification is that you can’t be afraid of heights,” he adds.

“There are answers to these questions. But there’s a hell of a lot of work left to do,”
says Dukakis.

DON’T LET ALL DECISIONS HAPPEN IN SILOS.

Dukakis’s last story was one that drove home the importance of communication from all parts of an organization—wrapped up in a brilliantly entertaining package. “I was a kid from Brookline, so I’d been taking the T for years and years and years. When I was elected governor, I opted to take the T to work. At first, in January of 1975, the response from people was great. It did something for morale to see the governor riding the T. Except for the fact we were breaking down two days out of five,” Dukakis says.

“By the time February rolled around, the reception wasn’t quite so warm. And finally, about the middle of February, after yet another breakdown, I said to the motorman, ‘what the hell is going on?’ He said, ‘they’re not replacing the pans.’” The pans, Dukakis would find out, were small pieces of metal bolted under the trolley cars to protect them from snow and ice.

“I said, ‘you’re telling me that in January and February, in New England, we’re not replacing the pans?’ He explained how the city had ordered new streetcars that would be delivered by June, and I guess somebody somewhere along the line suggested not to spend money on repairs to the old stuff when we’d have new stuff soon enough. So I got to the State House and called my secretary of transportation—he was a great guy named Fred Salvucci, a wonderful guy—and I said, ‘I have it on very good authority that the reason we’re breaking down is because they’re not replacing the pans.’ He said, ‘oh, no, that couldn’t be—I’ll call you back.’ Two hours later, he came back and said, ‘your guy is right.’ We replaced the pans.”

“The folks who are working on the system, they’ll tell you what’s going on. Genuinely, actively involving them in what’s going on is very, very important in the public sector—and in the private sector as well. It’s the folks working for you who are making the difference.”

In short, Dukakis believes it’s both easy and imperative to be ethical in the public sector. “About this ethics stuff,” he begins, “I can tell you this. It’s not difficult to be in politics and be honest. It’s very simple.”

“We ran an ethical and honest administration. We slept well at night and had a great time. I wouldn’t swap my life for anything. I’m 85; I feel good. I can’t think of anything I’d rather have done.”

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