Richard De George is irreplaceable.
At least that’s what colleagues say about the Kansas University distinguished professor of philosophy, who retired last year.
“I was in academia for 37 years, and Rich is one of a very small handful of people whom I would hold up as an example of what a university professor should be,” KU professor emeritus of business Joe Reitz said. Reitz added that De George did the work of three men: teaching, lecturing and researching.
In his 53-year career at KU, De George founded the study of business ethics and published 20 books and more than 200 articles. He received an honorary doctorate with Nelson Mandela and Bill Gates from the Nijenrode Business University in the Netherlands.
However, De George summarizes his academic career more succinctly than his 40-page curriculum vitae.
“I didn’t set out to change the whole world, but to do what I could to influence the development of capitalism with a human face as opposed to a rapacious face,” he said.
This influence on capitalism started over a lunch where he and then-KU School of Business Dean Joseph Pichler were bemoaning the lack of ethics in business.
“We said, let’s do something about it. Let’s have a conference,” De George said.
They held the world’s first business ethics conference at KU in 1976 and the field has blossomed since.
“People now take ethics in business seriously, whereas in the 1970s it was not taken seriously,” De George said.
This statement may raise a few eyebrows post-recession, where corporate greed sometimes dominates headlines. But De George points to public outcry as proof of his success.
“We complain much more if corporations do something unethical as opposed to saying, ‘Eh, that’s the way it goes.’ ”
Professors, like Reitz, came to KU to work with De George. Universities attempted to woo De George away. But De George stayed loyal to KU.
“Lawrence was a nice place to have a family and raise kids,” he said. “We asked, ‘Do we really want to grow old in New York?’ ”
Now his half-century tenure is over and what is left, besides the Hall Center for The Humanities and the International Center for Ethics in Business that De George helped create, are boxes and boxes of books and papers.
“One of the temptations in going through all of your stuff is saying ‘hey that’s interesting, I should read this’ or ‘hey I remember that I should look at that,’” he said sitting in his office. “That’s a time-waster.”
De George has no time to waste. He has been traveling cross-country and to Europe presenting papers and lectures. He also has his house and garden to tend after his wife died last year.
“Yes, I am definitely keeping busy,” he said.
In between all of the research and meetings, De George has found a few quiet moments to look back on his long career and think about his legacy.
“I have been able to do what I intended to do at a public institution,” he said. “The university treated me very well and let me do whatever I wanted. I have been satisfied.”
— Staff intern Adam Strunk can be reached at 832-7146.