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Professor of marketing

Director of the Center for Ethics

As a ninth-grader in Texas, Debbie Thorne got caught cheating on a math test.

It's a brave admission coming from the new director of the University of Tampa's Center for Ethics, which drills students on the importance of ethics and social responsibility in the business world.

"Everyone cheated in that class," Thorne recalled. "I was scared, and I got caught because I was scared."

Sitting right under the teacher's nose didn't help either.

The sting of that indiscretion is gone, but it strikes at the heart of what Thorne is trying to get across to the university's budding entrepreneurs, who soon will be confronted by a host of ethical dilemmas in the workplace.

"What it points to is peer pressure," Thorne said. "It happens whether you're in the fifth grade or you're in your 40s."

Learning how to recognize and handle those pressures is one of the issues the center focuses on in its mission to promote high ethical standards at the College of Business and throughout the university.

Whether it's padding your expense account, lying to your boss or not telling a client the truth about your product, students work through various ethical scenarios in the classroom.

The center's message is simple: Good ethics is good business and can mean profitability.

The key, Thorne said, is getting students to focus on long-term success, not get-rich schemes in which ethical lines often become blurred.

Thorne, a native of Austin, Texas, was named the center's director last month. At 29, she's the youngest person to hold that position. She's also not much older than the undergraduates she teaches.

However, that doesn't seem to deter Thorne, who has studied business and ethics for eight years. In that time, she has published more than 20 articles in her field, including several award-winning entries.

Thorne decided to pursue a career in teaching and business when she was in college in the late 1980s.

It was a volatile time for business when the country was introduced to junk bonds and when Michael Milken became a household name. Yet Thorne believed in the good business could do and decided to focus on the ethics issue.

"It was my belief that you could be profitable and responsible and you didn't hear too much of that in the '80s," she said. "I thought there were a lot of isolated incidents that were getting a lot of press, but we weren't highlighting a lot of the good that businesses were doing."

So far, the '90s have seen a return to ethical considerations by large and small businesses.

Fueling that change, Thorne said, are more demanding consumers who feel strongly about things like buying dolphin-safe tuna or cosmetics that weren't tested on animals.

"I think business received a wake-up call in the '80s, and I think we're seeing a return to the ability to balance profit and responsibility and ethics," she said.

In the classroom, Thorne said most students are surprised to find out how many ethical predicaments they'll face on the job. In addition to examining their own beliefs, students also learn how to recognize companies with strong ethical policies.

Does a company give workers time off for volunteer work? Do they give to charities? Is there a written ethical policy posted in the office?

"To me, ethics is more than your personal views," Thorne said. "It's an organizational issue and a societal issue as well."

The center's ethics class, "Societal Issues in Business," is a requirement for business majors.

Not surprisingly, it's one of the more popular business course at the university. Not everyone understands accounting, but just about every student has an opinion about what is right and what is wrong. "It's very difficult for students to move onto another topic," she said.

Thorne has been an assistant professor at the university for two years and teaches marketing and product management. She lives on Davis Islands.

Despite her youth, Thorne does bring some real-life experiences to the classroom. In between getting her master's degree and doctorate, Thorne worked for about a year at Texas Instruments.

As a product manager, she helped design the sales campaign for one of the company's laser printers and traveled three weeks out of every month teaching employees how to sell it.

Thorne said she never witnessed any shenanigans at the company, but there were plenty of opportunities to stretch the truth, from exaggerating travel expenses to lying about the product itself.

In sharing those experiences with her students, Thorne stresses the importance of holding firm to one's ethical beliefs. Bending the rules even once to meet a sales quota or get a big commission is courting danger, she said.

It's like that math test back in Texas. She cheated only once and got caught.

"I learned my lesson well," she said.