A Pioneer in Business Ethics: Rev. Gerald F. Cavanagh, S.J.

By Joseph G. Eisenhauer, Ph.D., Dean of the College of Business Administration, University of Detroit Mercy

Rev. Gerald F. Cavanagh, S.J. (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy)

Rev. Gerald F. Cavanagh, S.J. (Photo by University of Detroit Mercy)

Rev. Gerald F. Cavanagh, S.J. has had an exceptional career that spans more than half a century and more than a dozen Jesuit institutions. Discerning a vocation as both a priest and professor, he entered the Society of Jesus in 1953 after graduating from college with a degree in engineering at what is now Case Western Reserve University. He then earned a MBA, a Master of Education and a Licentiate in Philosophy from Saint Louis University, as well as a Licentiate in Theology from Loyola University Chicago. He was ordained in 1964, six years before completing a Doctorate of Business Administration at Michigan State University.

He has been a Trustee at Fordham University, Xavier University, John Carroll University, Loyola University New Orleans, College of the Holy Cross and Santa Clara University, where he has also held a Chair in Business Ethics and served as a visiting scholar in the University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. In addition, he has held positions in Management and Ethics at Boston College, Gonzaga University and the University of San Francisco, and has served on an Advisory Board for the Center for Ethics and Religious Values at the University of Notre Dame.

At the University of Detroit Mercy, where he has worked since 1980, Fr. Cavanagh has been an Associate Dean, Interim Dean, Provost and Trustee, and has chaired numerous committees in addition to his liturgical responsibilities. But his most cherished role is that of professor, writing and teaching on business ethics and social responsibility. Indeed, when asked what his greatest accomplishments have been, he says “palpably influencing” students, along with “having an influence on the thinking, attitudes and scholarship of those in the business ethics field.” He has certainly achieved both.

Research
Fr. Cavanagh was among the earliest pioneers who studied the social responsibility of business. In the 1960s and 1970s (when he first began work in this field), it was not yet recognized as a distinct sub-discipline within Management as it is today; his contributions helped make it so. He has chaired the Social Issues Division of the Academy of Management and the All-Academy of Management Task Force on Ethics. He has delivered nearly 90 professional presentations throughout the world—in Australia, Canada, Germany, Indonesia, Mexico, Spain and the United States—at Harvard and Stanford, as well as numerous Jesuit institutions including Georgetown University, Boston College, Seattle University, Saint Joseph’s University, Regis University, Creighton University and Fairfield University. He has published 5 books, more than 30 peer-reviewed journal articles and 20 chapters, as well as encyclopedia and magazine articles, monographs and proceedings papers.

His work has had tremendous impact: according to Google Scholar, his research has been cited well over 1,800 times—a remarkable achievement for a faculty member at a teaching-focused institution, whose career began before the internet came into existence. His most widely cited paper, coauthored with Dennis Moberg and Manuel Velasquez in the Academy of Management Review, is “The Ethics of Organizational Politics,” which Fr. Cavanagh describes as “the first [article] to outline and describe basic ethical norms in organizations.”

In a review* of Fr. Cavanagh’s most recent book, American Business Values, David Wasieleski of Dusquesne University wrote, “Gerald Cavanagh has been an important contributor to the Business and Society field for years. Through his teaching, his academic leadership, and his research, he has accomplished much through[out] his career in expanding the field’s knowledge on values and ethics."

In recognition of Fr. Cavanagh's path-breaking contributions and leadership in business ethics, both Loyola University Maryland and Siena Heights University have bestowed honorary doctorates of humane letters upon him. And he remains at the forefront of his discipline: since 2013, he has co-authored a book chapter on the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, an article in Business & Society Review, two articles in the Journal of Business Ethics, and another in the Journal of Jesuit Business Education

Teaching
As the Charles T. Fisher III Chair of Business Ethics at Detroit Mercy, Fr. Cavanagh has been instrumental in promoting the integration of social responsibility throughout the business curriculum at both the graduate and undergraduate levels. Just as important, he has been a powerful advocate of service-learning, insisting that all students should provide service directly to the less fortunate and then reflect upon their experiences. In honor of his initiatives in developing servant-leaders, our alumni have endowed a Cavanagh Scholarship, awarded annually to the business student who performs the most meaningful service-learning. Indeed, encouraging students to contemplate their lives and values has long been his trademark. Every year since arriving at Detroit Mercy, he has taken students away from their urban classrooms to go on a backpacking trip through Shenandoah National Park where they commune with God and nature to better appreciate creation. Many have said it was the best experience of their college years.

Beloved by alumni, students and colleagues alike, Fr. Cavanagh received Detroit Mercy’s first Distinguished Faculty Award in 1998. For decades, students have testified to his pedagogical effectiveness. In a recent course evaluation, one MBA student wrote:

I’m stubborn and it’s hard to change my mind. At the beginning of the semester, I would have argued that ethics and societal implications have no place in business. My opinions often differed from his, and because I don’t maintain religious affiliation I unfairly let that [bias] my opinion of Fr. Cavanagh. I didn’t think that one could teach a class on ethics and expect a change [in] people, but Fr. Cavanagh got to me. I have changed my views on business and life for the better…I’m an example that one’s views on ethics can change, and I’m not sure I’ve ever had another professor who could have had the same effect. Fr. Cavanagh, you won me over.

In the final analysis, that type of transformative, life-changing experience is exactly what a Jesuit education is intended to provide.

*Wasieleski, D.M. (2009). “Book Review of American Business Values: A Global Perspective, 6th Edition by Gerald Cavanagh.” Journal of Business Ethics, 6, 203-206.