Investigating "Institutional Corruption": $12.3-Million Gift for Center for Ethics

A new research agenda gets a powerful boost.

Lily Safra
Lawrence Lessig


A $12.3-million gift from Lily Safra will strengthen the University's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, which is named in honor of her late husband (read Harvard Magazine's article on the center's first two decades here); the Edmond J. Safra Foundation had endowed the center in 2004 with a $10-million gift. The center, established in 1986 as a program in ethics and the professions, has convened scholars, fellows, and speakers, from around Harvard and beyond, to probe issues in public and professional life. The center's founding director, Dennis Thompson, was succeeded in 2009 by Lawrence Lessig, professor of law, who has reoriented much of the center's work to focus on "a practical problem that's research-focused," as he put it in a conversation. (Read the University announcement here.)

Lessig is widely known as an expert in copyright and intellectual property (work featured earlier in Harvard Magazine and during a presentation at the Radcliffe Institute); after an initial Harvard Law School professorship, he moved to Stanford, before returning to Cambridge to focus the ethics center on probing the effect on public institutions of depending on money from sources affected by the work of those institutions (such as medical programs receiving funds from pharmaceutical companies). Those inquires are concentrated through a five-year ethics center research project called The Lab, which studies "the causes and consequences of institutional corruption,"  defined as "an economy of influence that either weakens public trust of a public institution, or weakens the effectiveness of the institution in achieving its purpose." Among projects being conducted by center fellows this academic year, according to its website, are:

…documenting financial ties between the pharmaceutical industry and psychiatric treatment boards, determining what psychological factors predict whether whistleblowers will be praised or rejected, and understanding the interaction of policy and daily attitudes towards risk in the financial industry.

The new gift from Lily Safra will support the center generally, permanently endow its graduate fellowships, and fund The Lab. (If the five-year research project proves a successful model, the center will be in a position to undertake a new, substantial research inquiry, Lessig hopes.) As Lessig noted, the graduate fellowships (six this year) continue. But the faculty fellowships have been redefined as "research fellowships" organized by The Lab's institutional-corruption project. The nine research fellows' work, complemented by that of several non-resident fellows and several other research projects, also include topics in medical education, the auditing industry, and public financing, among others, Lessig said. (Among faculty members leading such research projects are social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, Cabot professor of social ethics, and Daniel Carpenter, Freed professor of government, author of the recently published Reputation and Power: Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA, a monumental analysis of regulation of the drug industry in the United States.) Lessig himself is completing a book about public trust in the U.S. Congress. In a New York Times account of the gift, he said,

The traditional ethics questions are questions of right and wrong, of following the rules and not following the rules, and of what the rules should be. This is a subset set of that. Nobody is saying that anyone is cheating; this is more of a question about how to structure institutions to produce the kind of independence that we want these institutions to have.

According to the University's news release, Safra said,

I have always considered it a wonderful privilege to be able to count myself among the Edmond J. Safra Center’s friends and supporters, and I am delighted to offer this additional support for the center’s vitally important work. If we truly value justice and basic human dignity, ethical questions need to be part of every field of study and every policy discussion. I know my husband would share my great pride in the Edmond J. Safra Center’s tremendous contributions toward this goal—and its promise for the future.

Safra has been a member of the center's advisory council, and had previously helped endow its graduate and faculty fellowships. Edmond J. Safra founded Republic National Bank, which he sold to HSBC in 1999, shortly before his death in a fire. He and his wife supported numerous philanthropic activities in fields ranging from neuroscience research to cultural institutions in Israel. An early Harvard involvement was the Robert F. Kennedy visiting professorship of Latin American Studies, created in 1986. Lily Safra has chaired the Edmond J. Safra Philanthropic Foundation since 2000.

President Drew Faust said in the news release,

At a moment in history when many people are examining the global financial system and the role of public institutions, we will all benefit from serious research into the increasing complexity of public life and the ethical issues faced by corporate leaders.

Lessig said, in the separate conversation, that it was a bit of "wonderful serendipity that the values that most characterize Edmond J. Safra's career" are at the heart of The Lab's project on institutional corruption, and that this new gift will assure that the research project can be completed.


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