Mudd donates $4 million for W&L ethics center

$4 million donation is designed to help students think their way through difficult situations beyond graduation

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Roger Mudd says a 1935 children’s book, “Honk The Moose,” may be the reason he’s even in a position to donate $4 million to his alma mater, Washington & Lee University. When he was 7, he stole it from the old Brentano’s bookstore in downtown Washington, D.C.

The book is based on the true story of two boys in rural Biwabik, Minn. In the Great Depression, they hide a starving moose during a brutal winter and nurse it back to health by swiping hay meant for other animals from their father’s livery stable. Come spring the moose gets into trouble when he eats vegetables from local merchants and then disappears in the surrounding forests. His sins are slowly forgiven when, after many repeat visits for food handouts, the townsfolk warm to the four-legged mooch and eventually adopt him as the town mascot.

“I loved that book,” says Mudd, a 1950 history graduate of Washington & Lee who became a correspondent and anchorman for CBS, NBC, PBS and The History Channel. He spoke to Virginia Business in the living room of Elmwood, the white clapboard 1870s Queen Anne home on eight acres he and his wife, E.J., have shared with their four children in the heart of suburban McLean since 1972.

“My mother discovered it under my pillow,” Mudd recalls. “She asked me where I got it, and I blurted it out that I had taken it. . .  and she made me scrub the two bathrooms in our apartment for about six weeks, for 25 cents per bathroom, until I had enough money to go down to Brentano’s to pay for the book and tell the manager what I had done.

“During those six weeks, a 7-year-old boy learned the consequences of what [he] had done, and it was a lesson that I learned vividly, and stuck with me …Throughout my life the memories of that stolen book always stayed with me.”

His seven-figure donation for the new Roger Mudd Center for the Study of Professional Ethics is designed to broaden the selection of ethics courses now taught in the professional disciplines at W&L and establish the school as a national leader in the field of ethical studies.

Previous gifts

The gift was not his first to the university.  In 2006, Mudd gave W&L his collection of Southern fiction; and last year he provided the Leyburn Library with more than a dozen boxes of his personal and professional papers. They included written work from his semesters studying history on the Lexington campus, copies of the speeches and journalism lectures he gave there and tapes of some of his career’s most memorable broadcasts. Among the tapes are the 1971 documentary “The Selling of the Pentagon” and 1979’s “Teddy,” a devastating one-hour profile of U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy that some media analysts argue ended the presidential aspirations of the late Massachusetts lawmaker. Then there’s the material he used to write his 2008 memoir of his 19 years in the Washington bureau of CBS News, “The Place To Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News.”

“I thought for a long time how I could repay all those gifts Washington & Lee gave me,” Mudd says. “And it seems to be the appropriate time to do it, not only for me, but for the general ethical level in our culture … You just go down the morning paper, and every edition is replete with ethical failures in our culture …  The list goes on and on … It’s a modest contribution on my part to make the ethical life a part of everyone’s life.”

W&L President Kenneth P. Ruscio (Class of 1976) says he has talked with Mudd about ethics many times over the years. “Ethics are a longstanding strength of this university. For a very long time we’ve had multiple discussions internally about how we could take the next step to position Washington & Lee as a leading institution in this field … It is one thing for W&L to establish a center for the study of ethics. It is another thing to establish the Roger Mudd Center. We are extremely grateful that Roger has honored his alma mater in this way.”

According to Ruscio, about two-thirds of Mudd’s donation will be invested, with the proceeds used to pay its director and an endowed professorship. The remainder of the gift, along with the $400,000 endowment the school currently uses to fund its 35-year-old Society and the Professions ethical studies program, will fund the new center’s research, community outreach, conferences and educational programs for undergraduates, local high school teachers, W&L alumni and the public.

About eight W&L faculty and administrators will spend the next year designing the Mudd Center’s initial organizational structure and define how it will implement and fulfill its mission in the years ahead. Ruscio hopes to hire a nationally recognized ethicist to run the center before classes begin in the autumn of 2012.

“We view this expanded ethics program as a demanding intellectual exercise,” says Ruscio. “Not a ‘this-is-how-to-behave’ sort of approach, but rather a ‘this-is-how-to-think’ approach … It’s not that our students don’t know how to do the right thing, but the ethical challenges they will continue to face long after graduation are becoming more and more complicated.”

Power of the honor code

Mudd’s first lesson in ethics as a 7-year-old was reinforced more than a decade later when he arrived at W&L. He was impressed by the power and pervasiveness of the school’s honor code, in place since West Point graduate and former Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was its president for five years after the end of the Civil War. “I had grown up in an honorable family,” says Mudd. “I knew right from wrong, but still to be able to live in a cloistered community like Lexington and not have to worry about putting your books down somewhere or leaving your door open, it so freed you from all the problems that go along with people invading your privacy, and it made a mark on me.”

Along with a no-nonsense faculty adviser at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who in 1953 made him trim unattributed information from his master’s history thesis, Mudd credits the W&L honor code for shaping his career in broadcast journalism, from his first radio news job with WRNL in Richmond during the mid-1950s to his second with WTOP Radio in the District of Columbia, and from 1961 to 1980 when he covered Congress and Capitol Hill for CBS News.  “Television news was not a place of easy morals, but there was a lot of slipshod work, and in the judgments that were made,” he says. “I became rather prickly about it, and I became sort of a pain in the ass because people knew that I wanted to do things right.”

In fact, it was Mudd’s devotion to W&L and his enduring respect for its centuries-old traditions of honor and integrity that may have inadvertently torpedoed his chances to succeed Walter Cronkite as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” in 1981. The job eventually went to fellow CBS News reporter Dan Rather. On Dec. 7, 1970, Mudd was invited to give the keynote speech at the annual induction ceremony of Omicron Delta Kappa, the national leadership honor society founded at W&L.  Honored to speak on campus for the first time since his graduation 20 years earlier, Mudd indicted the radio and television news business for multiple institutional shortcomings, jabs that critics of TV news still use more than 30 years later.

To the dismay of his CBS superiors, who later scolded Mudd behind closed doors in New York, he told a full house in Lee Chapel that too much of television news was “crude” and preoccupied with “razzle dazzle.” He said TV reporters were forced to focus their efforts “on action, which is usually violent and bloody,” and that “the bright hopes that we all had for television forever elude us … Our broadcasts have not improved. If anything, the quality has declined. The tube has become a [drug] trip, a national opiate, a babysitter who charges nothing, something to iron [clothes] by, to shave to and to doze over.”

Before his W&L speech, Mudd’s high-profile political coverage and his regular turn as Walter Cronkite’s summer vacation fill-in had pushed him to the top of the list of possible replacements whenever Cronkite retired. After the speech, it took Mudd more than two years to return to the substitute anchor chair. Mudd was disappointed by the network’s negative reaction to what he thought was a straightforward  analysis of the TV news business, words he thought would improve his profession. Today he remains unrepentant.

“I wouldn’t have dared going back to my alma mater and try to blow smoke at ‘em.   I really wouldn’t have. I would really have been ashamed of myself,” he says. “The W&L speech was different, really different … I felt the time had come, if I was going to talk about my profession that I was going to go down there and tell them what I thought … I was really proud of CBS, the news division was really a hell of a place to work, and I thought [CBS News] was grown up enough and mature enough to take my criticism.  … I just thought it was time to say what you thought. And I thought that was the perfect place to do it.”

Mudd began to focus more on what he could contribute to the teaching of ethics in the late 1990s, as his full-time journalism responsibilities were winding down. His interest in repaying W&L for all it had done for him was increasing, so Mudd decided to help launch an annual Ethics Bowl competition among the 15-member Virginia Foundation for Independent Colleges. Each February teams of students gather to debate aspects of a complex ethical question in different disciplines, including sports, civil liberties, high technology, the environment, national security, law, science, education, business and journalism. “The more I got involved with this the more I began to think about how I could give back to Washington & Lee as recompense for what it had done for me,” says Mudd.

Mudd recognizes that the creation of an ethics center at W&L to sharpen the ethical reasoning of college students is far from the perfect solution to a very complex societal problem.“I think you begin in high school, junior high school even, ninth or tenth grade, where young boys and girls are trying to find themselves and are under extreme pressure to be somebody and the temptations to try and emulate your elders and cut a figure,” says Mudd. “That would be the ideal place to start.” 

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