Jerry Belle: Ethical Foundations

Their names have appeared on the big screen: Frank Abagnale, Michael Woodford, Erin Brockovich.

But these are no Hollywood movie stars. These are regular folks made famous when their stories about right and wrong were captured on film or in print. And they all came to Xavier to tell their gutsy tales because of the generosity of Jerry and Janet Belle.

Belle, who graduated from Xavier in 1968 with a degree in Marketing, has always had a thing about ethics. It was drummed into him from childhood and reinforced by his Jesuit education.

“It gave me a foundation in values,” he says. “I find the Jesuits to be very pragmatic. They deal in the religious world and the theoretical world, but they’re very pragmatic about education, and I walked away from Xavier with a great education based on solid values.”

Ever since graduating, however, Belle has found himself drawn back to Xavier. He helped make fund-raising calls as a young alum in the 1970s and soon was supporting the Annual Fund with financial donations of his own. Although his career took him internationally for almost 20 years, he has stayed involved, including serving on the President’s Advisory Council since 1998.

 We’re doing what we wanted, which was to bring to the forefront the concept of ethics in a professional capacity for a University like Xavier that basically has a mission built around doing things like that.

In a conversation with President Michael Graham about seven years ago, he related how he still gets that same special feeling when he visits the campus that he did when he was a student. Their conversation sparked the idea to help Xavier do even more to incorporate an ethics component into the business school.

“I said I really appreciated the education I received, but what struck me then was that the curriculum in the business school didn’t include an ethics component,” he says. “Ethics in business is particularly important, so you need to build an ethics component into the business program.” 

It turned out to be good advice. And with financial support from Cintas, an Institute for Business Ethics has since been added in the Williams College of Business to do just that.

Belle ought to know about the importance of ethics in business. As a longtime executive and twice-retired CEO with global pharmaceutical companies, he’s been at the helm when difficult decisions have had to be made. Belle always relied on his Xavier education to guide him.

“In my business career, on a routine basis, I’ve had to make decisions that involved ethics,” Belle says. “There are always choices in business, so it’s important to be well-grounded in the choices you are making, and in pharmaceuticals, it’s everything from patient safety and security to health and pricing. There are always a number of different decisions that can be made, but using the argument that the competition is doing it is not always the right answer.”

That philosophy served him well throughout his 37-year career, and he wanted to share it with new generations of Xavier students to help them understand the importance of ethics in business as a basis for decision-making.

So Jerry and Janet pledged their support, and the Heroes of Professional Ethics Lecture Series was born. As part of the Cintas Institute for Business Ethics, the series brings a speaker to campus every year to address issues related to ethics in business.

“I think it’s an important part of what the University is all about,” Belle says. “When you talk about values, I don’t see how we can do that without some component of ethics being included in the business school.”

Cintas Institute Director and Professor Paul Fiorelli says the Belles’ sponsorship “has allowed us to highlight moral courage and ethical actions. These speakers leave a lasting impression on our students, faculty and business community, and we are very grateful for the Belles' generosity.”

The Belles recently pledged support for a second five years in support of Together. For Others. The Campaign for Xavier University. Belle believes participating in the campaign is critical to the University’s future.

“I think that Father Mike and his predecessors have done a sterling job of planning for the future,” he says. “A lot of that has to do with adapting to the changing environment, and part of it in the case of Xavier is to get the infrastructure and programs in place to enhance the recruitment of the types of students the University needs to complete its mission.”

It's also important to have the right kind of investment in programs like the Heroes series, which has brought seven speakers to campus since 2012. One of Belle’s favorites was Frank Abagnale, who successfully passed himself off as an airline pilot, attorney, professor and pediatrician, and cashed $2.5 million in fraudulent checks. Once released from prison, he redeemed himself by working closely with the FBI, sharing his expertise to help them prevent fraud.

Jerry Belle greeting Erin Brockovich in 2013.

“The message he delivered was that although he went off the rails, the difference between him getting back on the rails and others who did not was his belief in family and his Catholic education,” Belle recalls. “I thought it was a good message for the  students, faculty and parents in the audience.”

Abagnale’s story was retold in his book, Catch Me If You Can, which became a film starring Tom Hanks. Erin Brockovich was another famous speaker whose quest to expose how Pacific Gas & Electric Company’s toxic waste was poisoning drinking water in California was retold in a movie starring Julia Roberts. Another was Michael Woodford, the CEO whose book about his experience exposing fraud at Olympus became a documentary about the company’s downfall.

Belle never tires of his allegiance to Xavier and the reward it brings him to know he and Janet are supporting a worthwhile cause they believe in deeply.

“We’re doing what we wanted, which was to bring to the forefront the concept of ethics in a professional capacity for a university like Xavier that basically has a mission built around doing things like that,” he says. “What’s in it for us is the satisfaction of knowing the idea of building an ethics program into Xavier has come to fruition.”

Learn more about the Heroes of Professional Ethics Lecture Series.

Visit Together. For Others to learn more about the campaign or make a donation.