A World that Works for Everyone

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Author: Jay Walljasper

Leo Burke photo by Barbara Johnston

You would expect Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business to focus its teaching on making profits from the world as it is instead of asking students to explore how to fundamentally change it.

But that means you probably haven’t met business Professor Leo Burke — a former entrepreneur, Motorola executive and, in his student days, manager of the Notre Dame football team.

At first glance, Burke ’70 hardly seems a rabble-rouser. Wearing tassel loafers, navy blue slacks, a tasteful blazer and wire-rim glasses, he looks exactly the part of a business professor. Yet when standing at the podium in an Executive Leadership Seminar — so slender it appears a strong breeze would carry him away — he sounds like a community organizer crossed with a moral philosopher. “When we are able to work out of our deepest values, we can work with a compassion for others that changes systems.”

He’s speaking to students in the executive MBA program who travel to South Bend once a month for an intensive four-day battery of classes. They are successful business leaders, many of whom have already climbed far on the corporate ladder and believe a Notre Dame MBA will boost them to the top, so you might expect some eyes to roll at this outspoken display of idealism. But everyone sits riveted by Burke’s message, scribbling notes in unison when he asks, “What inner capacity do you need to access in order to make a difference?”

“He urges you to go deeper, look harder,” says Kristin Mannion, a senior majoring in business information technology management who took his undergraduate course in 2010. “He’s a brilliant thinker and leader.”

“Even the biggest curmudgeons in class can’t help but stop and think about what he’s saying,” says Kerry Davis, 42, a global sales manager for a Chicago company and an executive MBA student. “Leo is such a gentle soul and lives with such a sense of purpose.”

The purpose that’s driving Burke’s life right now is an ancient idea he believes will be crucial to the future of humanity and our planet: the commons. At first, the term can provide more confusion than inspiration. Many people think of the commons as a park in downtown Boston or as communal grazing lands seized by English noblemen before and during the Industrial Revolution, turning many self-reliant peasants into unwilling factory workers.

Burke explains that “commons” has taken on a broader definition over the past 10 years, which could ultimately affect life in the 21st century as much as industrialization did in the 19th and 20th. The commons has now come to mean everything that we share together, which is owned by no one individually. This includes air and water, parks and roads, the Internet and scientific knowledge.

“The total inheritance of humankind upon which life depends,” is how Burke describes it. That’s from the website of the Global Commons Initiative, a project he’s launching out of Mendoza. But here’s the shorthand explanation he uses frequently in the classroom and conversation: “The commons means a world that works for everyone.”

Burke stresses the commons is not some abstruse theory — it’s part of the fabric of our daily lives. “You are actually participating in the commons, whether you know it or not, when you are volunteering at your local library, organizing a blood drive, doing a project with the Knights of Columbus or working with open source software.”

This idea of managing resources everyone shares depends on old-fashioned virtues like cooperation and collaboration, which play a huge if little-noticed role in making the world go ’round — even in a nation like the United States devoted to individualism and private property.

Burke and others in the nascent commons movement point out that modern life would be impossible without all the things we share — starting with water, the atmosphere, biodiversity and the bounty of nature. We also depend on human creations such as language, cultural customs, stories, religious practices, scientific knowledge, civil society and public services. These natural and cultural riches are not the exclusive property of anyone. They exist for everyone to use, exchange, improve upon and pass on to future generations.

Even the market economy with all of its rewards for individual initiative, commons advocates say, would fall to pieces without a solid foundation of commons-based institutions: the legal system to settle disputes, police enforcement to protect property, schools to train employees, regulatory agencies to protect people’s interests, educational institutions to do basic research.

One example of the commons at work is the Internet, which was not developed by Apple or Google but by the U.S. government, thanks to our tax dollars. It has become the information and communications nexus of the modern world precisely because it is based on the ideals of sharing, not hoarding. The Internet offers a textbook example of how a commons functions.

But the workings of the web are now on a collision course with copyright laws, which lock away information and creative work from anyone not paying for them. Copyright, along with patent laws, serves a useful purpose by making sure people can benefit from the success of their creations. But copyright laws have grown increasingly repressive through the years.

The original Copyright Act of 1790 established a 14-year copyright with a chance to renew for another 14 years if the creator was still living. The Sonny Bono Act of 1998 sets copyright at 70 years beyond the death of the creator, or 120 years from the time of creation if owned by a corporation. Some have charged that this disrupts the natural creative cycle of human civilization, in which ideas and culture become available for everyone to use and reinvent.

So how do we reward creators for their work but not stifle everyone else’s creativity? Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig looked to the workings of the commons for a solution and came up with the Creative Commons license — a system in which writers, musicians, photographers, designers and others allow people to freely share their work but retain the right to charge for commercial uses. Today, Creative Commons licenses are recognized in 50 countries, including the United States, and cover more than 150 million individual works.

In his classes, Burke assigns the book Capitalism 3.0 by Peter Barnes, co-founder of the organization On the Commons. Barnes proposes that commons assets such as the airwaves, the Internet, watersheds, groundwater, city streets and the atmosphere be managed for the benefits of everyone.

Barnes translated this commons idea into legislation to curb global warming, which has been introduced in Congress by senators Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) and Susan Collins (R-Maine). Under Barnes’ Cap-and-Dividend plan, we all are equal owners of the sky and must impose increasingly stiff restrictions on carbon emissions to protect our property. By the same token, any fees companies pay in compensation for their pollution should be distributed to the American public equally. This approach differs from President Barack Obama’s Cap-and-Trade proposal, in which companies keep the profits from buying and selling the right to emit carbon.

Writing in the international magazine Kosmos, Burke declares, “What makes the commons come alive are human relationships — the dynamic interactions of people working together to address shared needs.”

David Bollier, co-founder of the international Commons Strategy Group and author of Silent Theft, says Burke’s own way of working seems to mirror the commons itself. “Not having ego hang-ups and the need to take credit for everything allows him to work in powerful ways of putting people and ideas together.”

Through the Global Commons Initiative, Burke has established both MBA and undergraduate courses in the commons at Notre Dame, launched an open-source commons curriculum available to everyone (now part of the London-based School of Commoning) and is working with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research on an “Introduction to the Global Commons” curriculum. Once associate dean for executive education at Mendoza, he has now cut back to half-time teaching and research so he can travel the world forging partnerships with commons advocates and scholars.

Still, a question remains: As important as the commons may be, why study it in a business school rather than in humanities or social science departments?

Dean Carolyn Woo, who helped Burke create the Global Commons Initiative before she left Notre Dame in December, reels off five answers to that question without stopping for a breath. 1) Understanding the global dimension of business is essential for anyone in the work world today; 2) Managing complex systems, including the interdependent relationships that characterize the commons, will be necessary for tomorrow’s leaders; 3) Safeguarding God’s creation is at the core of the Mendoza College’s purpose; 4) Paying attention to the commons promotes the school’s mission to “ask more of business”; 5) Giving students a wider view of the world on many levels will better prepare them for the future.

“The culture we live in today is so competitive,” says Woo, who left the deanship to head the international Catholic Relief Services. “There’s this whole idea that there is only one winner, and everyone else loses. We want people to realize that we are not always keeping score, that our capacity to care for others is part of our own growth.

“Notre Dame’s founding mission is that we do good for society, not just for ourselves,” she continues. “The global commons is one more aspect of broadening our perspective to serve other people.”

Indeed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms the importance of the commons: “The right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind” [No. 2403].

Burke’s research documents commons principles in Roman law and the Magna Carta as well as encyclicals by popes Leo XIII, Pius XI, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II. “Throughout history the commons has focused on those resources necessary to sustain life,” he writes. “As such, it is closely related to the ‘common good,’ a key concept in Catholic Social Teaching.”

For all the excitement he generates among students and colleagues about the potential of the commons to help us solve seemingly intractable problems like economic inequity, ecological decline and social alienation, Burke is candid about the forces that threaten our shared inheritance.

He notes that each day brings more news about companies “releasing vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere, patenting the genes necessary to cure cancer, privatizing water, depleting ocean fisheries and claiming seeds as their intellectual property. Corporations face ever-increasing pressure from capital markets to externalize and maximize short-term profits. This orientation often runs counter to the long-term view needed to sustain shared resources for hundreds of years.”

That’s why, he believes, “It’s fundamentally appropriate to examine the commons in a business school, because a lot of what we are doing today to destroy the commons comes from the process of maximizing profit,” which is generally what business schools teach. “That’s not to say that profit in itself is bad, but too often we don’t think enough about what happens in the pursuit of it.”

Burke notes that 20 years ago few B-schools offered classes in sustainability. Now almost all do. He predicts the same thing will happen with the commons, which today is the focus of courses in only a handful of universities and no other business programs that Burke is aware of.

“My concern is that our students absolutely get the best education in marketing, finance, accounting, et cetera, but we also need to invite them to look at the world expansively. I want to make sure we are preparing our students for the world they will live in and lead.”

Yet Burke is quick to point out that a greater understanding of the commons is no panacea for all that’s wrong. He cautions, “Too much emphasis on the commons might not leave space for entrepreneurial efforts that are beneficial.” But we are a long way from needing to worry about that, he adds. The critical balance between individualism and the common good is radically tilted in the direction of the individual in modern society.

In his executive MBA classes, which meet in South Bend and Chicago, he uses the Great Lakes as a case study. “People love the Great Lakes, and they were once a great environmental success story. But people don’t realize they are in trouble again. The pollution, the fracking, the diversion of water. Lake Michigan could become the Aral Sea, which has lost 85 percent of its water in the last 30 years.”

Rather than emphasize “gloom and doom,” which, he says, “does not work in teaching because people just tune out, you must remind students that along with things breaking down, there are opportunities for breakthroughs.” He introduces the commons as a tool that business, investors, citizens, government and nonprofit groups can use to work together to find solutions to looming problems. When you view something like the Great Lakes as a common asset held by everyone who lives there, he says, it stimulates new creativity.

Burke tells a story of a hedge fund manager who, like many executive MBA students, did not at first see the practical application of the commons in his life. “Sure, you can’t walk into the office the next Monday and change everything you do,” Burke admits. But after more discussion in the classroom this student realized the idea was at the core of something he cared deeply about.

“He grew up in the Midwest, and during the summers his family would vacation on the Wabash River,” Burke narrates. “Now in his 40s, he vacations with his children on the river. He was distressed that a chemical company (private sector) is polluting the river, and the state department of natural resources (public sector) is not adequately enforcing environmental laws. He expressed concern whether the river would be healthy for his grandchildren. He came to understand that the Wabash River is a commons. That gave him a whole new view of how the river could be cared for.”

As passionate as Burke is about the commons, he is careful to remember his role in the classroom is educator, not proselytizer. “Ninety percent of our executive MBA students are here to enhance their careers,” he says, “so I am not here tell them how to think, only to offer some questions that I hope will enable important conversations to take place, not only in the classroom but maybe later at a PTA meeting or on the golf course.”

“Notre Dame’s business school is a very market-driven place,” says Amy Fitzgerald, 34, an executive MBA student who worked on economic development projects for the British government before undertaking a mid-career transition. “So I was surprised to hear about the commons here, although he made sure we understood the difference between commons and communism. It’s like my eyes have been opened, even if I struggle with how to integrate the commons into my work.” Fitzgerald, who lives in Evergreen Park, Illinois, is thinking about creating a class in the commons for high school students.

“Students love [Burke], I think, because they get a perspective that they cannot get anywhere in the business curriculum,” says James Quilligan, an international development adviser to world leaders ranging from Jimmy Carter to West Germany’s Willy Brandt to Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, who is now advising the U.N. Global Compact on the significance of the commons. “In turn, Leo has found that his students bring innovative strategy and solutions to the problems of commons management.”

After a long day in the classroom, Burke shows his executive MBA students Amazing Grace, a 2006 movie with Albert Finney about English politician William Wilberforce, who after 26 years of rancorous debate finally pushed through legislation in 1807 that banned the slave trade across the British Empire.

“At that time there were people who said we couldn’t outlaw slavery because of the effect on the economy,” which is an argument we hear today about changes, Burke tells me after introducing the movie. He’s already seen the film a dozen times, so I persuade him to take me on a tour of his favorite campus commons.

We step into a steamy summer evening, and he points out Holy Cross Chapel inside Stinson-Remick Hall, where he slips away sometimes to meditate. Burke leads me through the quads, past Hesburgh Library, the Dome and the Basilica, and then into the Grotto before stepping onto the pathway circling the lakes — all places shared by the Notre Dame community as special sources of meaning, inspiration and pleasure.

One of his favorite Notre Dame commons, he explains, is not a place at all but the Center for Social Concerns, a service-learning center that puts the Gospel and Catholic social teaching into practice. Every time a cell phone rings in his executive MBA classes, he says with a smile, the recipient of the call must put 20 bucks in a jar to be donated to the center.

As we round Saint Joseph’s Lake, a long-threatening thunderstorm finally cracks the sky and we dash toward a sheltered patio outside Moreau Seminary. Burke is reminded of his time as student manager for the football team, which then bunked at the seminary on nights before home games. Part of his job was seeing that the players got to bed early. He recounts it as a great experience getting to know such stars as Alan Page ’67, Joe Theismann ’71 and especially coach Ara Parseghian.

“That’s where I first learned about management,” he recalls. “Ara was a remarkable leader, very charismatic and caring. A taskmaster but very ethical and fair.”

Burke had grown up in Richmond, Virginia, where his father and uncle — both Domers — ran a family furniture store. As with most students, he found that coming to campus as a freshman opened up a feast of new ideas. “Students were talking about all kinds of issues — social justice and what’s really important in life.”

He graduated with a sociology degree in 1970 and headed to Indiana University for a master’s in political science. Ironically, Elinor Ostrom, who won the Nobel Economics Prize in 2009 for decades of research about how the commons functions in communities around the world, was on the faculty, but Burke never took a course from her. His concentration was jurisprudence.

In his life’s work, Burke has been continually drawn to both visionary exploration and practical action. After graduate school he became a sales rep for a gift and greeting card firm, eventually starting his own company specializing in artistic cards for museum shops. In the 1980s, intrigued by how the emerging field of organization development was introducing insights from many arenas into the workplace, he earned another master’s in the subject and joined Motorola Corporation as director of its in-house College of Leadership and Transcultural Studies. “By that point,” he says, “the company was operating in so many countries they realized that executives needed special training in order to do their best work.”

After 12 years at Motorola, he was lured back to Notre Dame to become associate dean for executive education. Dean Carolyn Woo deemed his diverse experiences just right for shaping the Mendoza College’s programs for students already in the midst of their careers. “He’s a combination of reflection and action, a deep soul and a proven implementer, a hermit and a person of the world.”

Suddenly bells start ringing amid the thunderclaps. We sit quietly for a few moments, savoring the cool breeze as we watch lightning illuminate the heavens across the lake. I ask Burke for more details about the connection between the commons and new breakthroughs in scientific understanding. “The spiritual implications of quantum mechanics are remarkable,” he says softly. “What we are hearing from physicists is that all things are unified.

“You don’t have to be a Buddhist to believe that,” he adds. “Jesus says it. Catholic social teaching says it. Now science says it. I think this insight could provide us with a new model about how we organize our society and our economy.”

He’s quiet again, as if trying to figure out a puzzle in his mind. “I really try to listen closely to my students, and what I hear all of them say is that their families are most important in their lives. I hear them say they want to make a difference in their communities. But the way we work today, and the way our economy works, doesn’t always support that.

“There’s a huge gap between what we want for our children and grandchildren, and where we are headed right now as a society,” adds Burke, who is awaiting the birth of his own first grandchild at the time we speak. “The commons gives us new ways to bridge that gap.”

Looking up I notice the rain has stopped. The night is now illuminated by lightning bugs instead of lightning.

Burke stands up, gazing at the sky. “The commons means a world that works for everyone,” he offers, before heading back across campus in the gloriously cool air to rejoin his class.


Jay Walljasper is the author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons and editor of OnTheCommons.org. See his article imagining South Bend as a bastion of the commons in the year 2035. His website is JayWalljasper.com.


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