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By Sue Kern-Fleischer 


The United States Naval Academy took the top prize at the Collegiate Ethics Case Competition, coordinated by the Eller Center for Leadership Ethics. Undergraduate students from 25 universities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico converged upon Tucson for the 14th annual event Oct. 20-21, which tasked student teams with providing a detailed analysis and strategic recommendations for a case study involving the recent Apple vs. FBI iPhone dispute.

Simon Fraser University took second place, the University of Calgary took third place, the University of Washington took fourth place and Boston College took fifth place. Regional runners up included Elon University, Concordia University, Georgetown University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Florida. The University of Florida also brought home the Stephanie Chance “Bright Line” Essay Award.

Paul Melendez, professor of practice and founder of the Center for Leadership Ethics at the Eller College, authored this year’s case as he has done in the past. He said the winning teams all demonstrated a keen understanding of corporate social responsibility, moral reasoning and leadership skills.

“Congratulations to the United States Naval Academy for their outstanding first-place presentation. As part of their prize, they will receive an all-expense paid trip to Ethisphere’s 9th Annual Global Ethics Summit in March in New York City. This is the first time we are offering this exciting prize package, and we’re very grateful to Ethisphere’s CEO, Timothy Erblich, and his team for their support of our ethics case competition,” Melendez said.

More than 450 leaders are expected to attend the Global Ethics Summit, Ethisphere’s premier annual event that connects a diverse class of company leaders with the goal of inspiring company integrity and responsible business performance. CEOs, board members, CLOs, corporate secretaries, chief compliance officers, leading industry executives, global thought leaders and others participate in the Summit to network, collaborate, exchange ideas, share best practices and fuel companies with actionable solutions to minimize risk and enhance company performance worldwide.

“The best companies and leadership understand that attracting and retaining the best people is as important as the values they live by and culture they create,” said Timothy Erblich, CEO of the Ethisphere Institute. “The collegiate ethics case competition hosted by Eller’s Center for Leadership Ethics helps develop future leaders who will certainly impact the world in a positive and productive manner. There is no more profound investment than our future, your students and leaders, and we at Ethisphere applaud the program, participants and the winners.”

Midshipman First Class David Larkin and Midshipman Second Class Nick Costa, a senior and a junior at the United States Naval Academy, embraced the challenge of preparing for the Eller Ethics Case Competition, and their rigorous studies and practice paid off when they won the top prize

Shaun Baker, assistant director, the Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, United States Naval Academy, helped coach Larkin and Costa to their victory.

“Our mission is to develop midshipmen mentally, morally and physically, to be leaders of character for the Navy, the United States and the world,” Baker said. “We realize all of our graduates will serve at least five years as officers in the Navy and Marine Corps, and that some will stay for a career and others will not, but almost all will enter the private sector at some time in their lives. We hope that our academic and military programs put them in position to lead with integrity and moral courage in both of these spheres.”

The U.S. Naval Academy’s Ethics Team is a club that allows midshipmen to exercise moral “muscle” while wrestling with ethical challenges and cases drawn from business, medicine, media, finance, governance, and other aspects of society that they may not have as much exposure to as their civilian student counterparts.

“This competition is a very challenging one for us, as the other schools typically field teams of business and management majors. They are extremely knowledgeable and well-versed in all the arcana of the discipline. Our school does not have such programs, and we find it invigorating and challenging to compete against such high achievers from the realm of business,” Baker said.

The Naval Academy’s Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership, along with the USNA class of 1964 sponsors the USNA Ethics Team, and holds as their exemplar of such excellence in leadership, Vice Admiral Jim Stockdale, who, for seven and a half years bravely led the POW population at the Hoa Lo Prison (better known as the Hanoi Hilton) through the ordeal of their captivity at the hands of the North Vietnamese.

Stockdale endured horrific torture, isolation and deprivation, always with the guiding end in mind of allowing his fellow POWs to survive the imprisonment with their moral, emotional and psychological integrity intact.

“Under the direst of circumstances, he succeeded, and was universally loved by his fellow POWs,” Baker said. “Such examples serve as ideals we wish our midshipmen to strive for, and serve as daily inspiration for all of us that are privileged to staff the Stockdale Center.”

While Larkin and Costa had competed in ethics case competitions in the past, nothing compared to the Eller case study involving the Apple vs. FBI iPhone dispute.

“This case study was unique in that it had a prominent national security component, which added a level of gravity to the deliberations. We have had many business ethics cases that have international repercussions, but not one quite like this, outside our own Military Ethics Case Competition, held each April. That national security implication placed greater stress upon the competing privacy and personal data security components of the case,” Baker said.

Larkin said one reason the case was so challenging was because of the many stakeholders with different interests and obligations.

“We began by defining how the ideal business in our society should operate using John Rawl’s ‘veil of ignorance.’  Using that model of an ideal business, we addressed those conflicting financial, legal, and ethical considerations that Apple had in the specific case,” Larkin said.

Costa explained that part of their analysis was to agree that neither the FBI nor Apple was totally ‘wrong’; they both were fighting for what they genuinely believed was right.

“It was our job to figure out which body had a stronger case, and after getting into the weeds of the technical details and historical facts, we came to the conclusion that Apple had the strongest case, and that they didn’t really need to do anything differently,” Costa said. “In general, especially with regards to the example of Apple and the FBI, researching and understanding as many of the minute details and technicalities as reasonable is a necessary step in making accurate and compelling evaluations and recommendations.”

Baker said he is proud of Larkin and Costa for tackling such a tough case study in a strategic, focused manner.

“I am in continual awe of the abilities or our midshipmen. I am very optimistic about our country’s future when I see them at work, and especially when we gather with like-minded students from institutions of higher education from all over the U.S., Mexico and Canada at the Eller College of Management’s Case Competition. It is always a highlight of our year,” he said.

Major sponsors of the event included Ethisphere, Walgreens, Merchants Information Solutions, Bank of America, Ernst & Young, GEICO, and Hewlett Packard.


Top image of Midshipman Second Class Nick Costa and Midshipman First Class David Larkin, both students at the United States Naval Academy, by Thomas Veneklasen.