The Crown Lecture in Ethics brings speakers to Duke to discuss ethical concerns in fields like the arts, sciences, medicine and business. It centers the Sanford School’s efforts to focus student, faculty and public opinion on the critical importance of ethical decision-making. The series is named for Lester Crown, a businessman, civic leader and chairman emeritus of Henry Crown and Company.

Cal Newport

Why Can't I Focus? On Emails, Smartphones, and the Age of Distraction  October 5, 2023

Our attention has become fragmented. At work, the demands of email and Slack are constant, while at home the many appealing apps on our phones continue their diversionary onslaught. In this talk, Georgetown computer science professor and bestselling author Cal Newport will draw from his three most recent books, Deep Work (2016), Digital Minimalism (2019), and A World Without Email (2021), to examine the critical collisions of technology and society that led us into this current Age of Distraction. He will then leverage this nuanced understanding of how new tools upended our relationship with our own attention to explore the types of solutions that work.

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Federica Donato

The Intersection of Art and Democracy. March 30, 2023

Visual artist and social activist Federica Donato is best known for her commitment to promoting social causes and championing human rights. She is the President of Art4Humanity Foundation, which is founded on the belief that art and education can pave the way for a profound cultural shift to forge more balanced, inclusive, and knowledge-based societies. She advocates for equity, inclusion, and human dignity for all. Hailing from Italy and currently in Miami, Florida, Donato uses art and the camera lens to tell a story and empower vulnerable communities by shining a focus on issues that the world needs to see.

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dr. jeanette betancourt

Equity and Inclusion on Sesame Street.  January 18, 2022

Dr. Jeanette Betancourt, Senior Vice President for U.S. Social Impact at Sesame Workshop, spoke on January 18 about "Equity and Inclusion on Sesame Street". She directs the development and implementation of community and family engagement initiatives making a difference in the lives of vulnerable children and their families. These research-based initiatives are designed to impact children’s early learning, health and well-being, and provide strategies and resources to counteract the effects of trauma while fostering the critical connections that adults have on children’s lives. 


The Human Story of Global Migration. November 2019

In his 20s, journalist Jason DeParle wanted to understand poverty better, not through statistics, but as a lived experience. He went to the Philippines and moved in with a family in one of the worst slums in Manila. For eight months, DeParle lived with Tita Portagana Comodas and her five children. The story of poverty he found there was also a story of migration. Tita’s husband was working as a pool cleaner in Saudi Arabia to support them. Her five children eventually moved abroad. A  New York Times reporter and a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, DeParle discussed his 30-year friendship with the family. His book is called “A Good Provider is One Who Leaves: One Family and Migration in the 21st Century." 

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Truth is My Weapon: A Campaign Against Sexual Violence and Genocide. October 2018 

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Nadia Murad sat down with Sanford School Dean Judith Kelley to discuss her work on behalf of the Yazidi people after the attempted genocide by Islamic State (ISIS) forces.  Murad is a survivor of the August 2014 genocidal attack by ISIS on her hometown, Kocho, in northern Iraq. She was captured and forced into slavery.  Since her escape she has become a leading advocate for her people and against the use of sexual violence in war. Shortly before the discussion, Murad was named a joint 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winner with Congolese physician Denis Mukwege.

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Politics and Our Potential: Can Congress Rise to Meet Its Obligation to Govern? March 2018 

Describing herself as “a recovering politician,” Sen. Olympia Snowe, former Republican senator and representative from Maine, Monday described the polarization in the nation’s capital as an “unfortunate and regrettable chapter in our political history.” Snowe gave the Crown Lecture in Ethics at the Sanford School in March 2018 drawing on her experience as the first and only woman to serve in both houses of a state legislature and both chambers of Congress. She contrasted the bipartisan nature of government in the past with today’s extreme partisanship and dysfunction. The essence of public service is to solve problems, she said, which “stands in stark contrast to today, where it seems that the campaigning never stops and the governing never begins,” she said. 

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To Be Honest: When Scientific Integrity and Corporate Interests Clash November 2016

UC Berkeley biologist Tyrone Hayes describes himself as, in the beginning, “a little boy who liked frogs.” In 2016, he recounted how he ended up in a decades-long crusade against atrazine and its maker, Syngenta, a global agrochemical company. Mother Jones magazine called it one of “the weirdest feuds in the history of science.” Hayes, the 2016 Crown Lecturer in Ethics, discussed his experience with Sanford Professor Philip Bennett.

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A Conversation about Art and Politics March 2015

As a college student, Pulitzer and Tony award-winning playwright Tony Kushner searched for “a way to be a theater artist and an activist,” he told the audience at the Sanford School of Public Policy. Kushner, the 2015 Crown Lecturer in Ethics, engaged in a freewheeling discussion of art, politics and history with Professor Philip Bennett. Kushner pointed to German playwright and Marxist Bertolt Brecht as his role model. “He offered the possibility of being deeply engaged and an artist,” said Kushner.  “Of course, in my 20s, I didn’t know how hard that could be.” Kushner grew up in Louisiana during the Civil Rights era, a Jewish boy in a small town. “In some ways, I am a Southern playwright,” he said.

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Our Biggest National Security Threat is the Status of Our Children October 2012

Marian Wright Edelman  said advocating for children should be the next great social movement in America, and children should be involved in it. “We all must become movement builders. Some are waiting for Dr. King to come back, but we’re it,” she said, adding that during the civil rights movement, children were on the front lines bearing the brunt of the fight to desegregate schools, including Ruby Bridges and a family in Drew City, Miss., that she represented in court.  Eight children from that family were the only black children to attend the white schools in their town and all eight went on to college.



Crown Lecture in Ethics April 2012

Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi was raised in Tehran and studied law at the University of Tehran.  In 1975, she was the first woman to serve as a judge in Iran, but was demoted to a clerk after the Iranian revolution in 1979.  She became a lawyer, and a high profile human rights activist, especially concerned with the rights of children and women. She taught at the University of Tehran for several years. In 2001, she was a founding member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center. In 2003, she was the first Muslim and the first Iranian to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. 


Good Persons, Good Workers, Good Citizens February 2011

“I’m interested in the word ‘good,’ ” said Howard Gardner, Harvard professor and recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant. Gardner has learned there are important differences in how the word is used in public conversations. Gardner said there is an important distinction between “good” in the realm of “neighborly morality” and in the context of the ethical behaviors required of workers and citizens. Gardner described his efforts with the GoodWork Project. The project focuses on how people succeed in times of rapid change, when everyone’s sense of time and space is being altered by technology and when there is little to counterbalance powerful market forces. He defined good work as having three qualities: excellence—being technically good; engaging—people want to do it; and ethical—done in a responsible way.


Henrietta Lacks and Current Issues in Medical Ethics March 2010

Science writer Rebecca Skloot presented the 2009-2010 Crown Lecture in Ethics, "Henrietta Lacks and Current Issues in Medical Ethics" based on her best-selling book about Henrietta Lacks.

Lacks, a descendant of slaves, entered the "colored" wing of the Johns Hopkins Medical Center to be treated for cervical cancer in 1950. Without her knowledge, some of her cells were taken. Although Henrietta died eight months later, her cells did not. Those cells, known as HeLa, became one of the most important tools in medical research. Yet Henrietta's children struggle with poverty and lack of health care.

Skloot became fascinated with Henrietta Lacks in high school, and spent 10 years researching and writing her story. Skloot traveled from state-of-the-art research labs to the abandoned town of Clover, Va., where Henrietta had lived as a child. 


The Moral Imperative to Enhance Human Beings September 2008

Oxford University Professor Julian Savulescu explored advances in genetic and biological engineering and their implications during the 2008 Crown Lecture in Ethics at the Sanford Institute. Savulescu holds the Uehiro Chair in Practical Ethics at the University of Oxford, and is also the director of the university’s Program on Ethics and the New Biosciences in the 21st Century.

His talk, “The Moral Imperative to Enhance Human Beings,” focused on the positive potential for these discoveries to liberate humanity from some constraints of our biology. The quest to improve ourselves is part of the human spirit, he said. Using new technologies to enhance our basic biology can make us “happy people, not just healthy people.” 


Lessons of Hope for a World in Need February 2007

Paul Rusesabagina is known worldwide as the courageous hotel manager portrayed in the movie "Hotel Rwanda." Over the course of 100 days in 1994, almost 1 million people were killed in a wave of ethnic violence. At great personal risk, Rusesabagina offered the Mille Collines Hotel to shelter 1,200 people from certain death.

Rusesabagina is the recipient of many awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the National Civil Rights Museum Freedom Award and the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award. Of his life-changing experiences, Rusesabagina  has said, "I've become a humanitarian and I never thought I would become one. And, as a humanitarian, I wanted to take this message on a wider scale, to raise awareness of what happened in my country so that the international community can help others who suffer now."


Seizing the Moment: How Individuals and Societies Respond to Crises February 2006

Every society makes mistakes. Some are catastrophic. But most can be attributed to rational, if short-sighted, decisions. That's the message of two acclaimed studies of the rise and fall of human societies by Jared Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA. In his 1998 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Guns, Germs and Steel, Diamond explored the environmental reasons why some societies advance technologically. In 2005's Collapse, he asked why some societies hold on to their core values even after environmental change makes those values destructive to the society. 


The Global Economy & U.S. Foreign Policy October 2003

Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, spoke in front of a packed crowd at Geneen Auditorium about the global economy and U.S. Foreign Policy. Friedman is well-known for his columns and books, including the recently published "Longitudes and Attitudes: Exploring the World After September 11," a collection of his post-9/11 columns for the Times, and "The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization," an international best-seller that makes understandable the concept of globalization.

"The global economy and U.S. foreign policy are critical issues both to the U.S. and to the greater international community," said Bruce W. Jentleson, director of Duke's Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. "They are also key components of one of our areas of specialization: globalization, development and democratization.


The Moral Authority of the President February 1999

Noted presidential historian and commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin, a former White House intern herself, delivered the Crown Lecture in Ethics three days before the end of the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton. Her topic? "The Moral Authority of the President."  Goodwin, author of books on Lyndon Johnson, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and the Kennedys, looked to the past for lessons on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

She reminded the audience of what took place behind closed doors during the FDR administration.

"Just imagine what the modern media would make of the Roosevelt White House," Goodwin said. "A secretary involved with her boss [FDR]. A woman reporter in love with Eleanor. A [Norwegian] princess visiting on week-ends. The prime minister [Winston Churchill, a frequent overnight guest] drinking from the moment he awakens until the moment he goes to bed at night - and yet saving England in the process. 



Crown Lecture in Ethics 1997-1998

Jody Williams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 for her work to ban landmines through the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which shared the Peace Prize with her that year. At that time, she became the tenth woman – and third American woman – in its almost 100-year history to receive the prize.  Since her protests of the Vietnam War, she has been a life-long advocate of freedom, self-determination and human and civil rights.

Like others who have seen the ravages of war, Williams is an outspoken peace activist who struggles to reclaim the real meaning of peace – a concept which goes far beyond the absence of armed conflict and is defined by human security, not national security. Williams believes that working for peace is not for the faint of heart.


Inaugural Crown Lecture in Ethics 1996-1997

Senator Bill Bradley addressed a large crowd in the Fleishman Commons as the first Lester Crown Lecturer in Ethics. A former Rhodes Scholar, Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer and U.S. Senator, Bradley said his vision for this country is a "pluralistic, multiracial, multicultural, multiethnic democracy where people not only vote, but participate ... a democracy with a growing economy that takes everybody, not just a few, to a higher ground." Bradley also urged the audience to consider the moral and spiritual dimensions of their lives, something "deeper than material possessions."