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Mignon Smith and the Quest for Business Ethics

Textile heiress and Washington businesswoman Mignon Smith found herself “horrified” by recent scandals involving America’s business leaders. So, she decided to do something about it.

As the great-granddaughter of former Alabama governor B. B. Comer and a one-time UA student, Ms. Smith turned her attention to her home state and the Capstone. She donated $5 million to the University to establish the Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility in honor of her parents, J. Craig and Page T. Smith. Her gift also finances the J. Craig Smith Endowed Chair for Integrity in Business. As CEO of Avondale Mills, J. Craig Smith stressed ethics and responsibility to employees and the community, Ms. Smith said.

The Center for Ethics and Social Responsibility emphasizes learning through service to the community, and conducts the Moral Forum, a University-wide debate program that teaches students how to logically and fairly consider and discuss thorny moral issues. Students learn to argue both sides of the issue, said Stephen Black, because the ability to understand opposing viewpoints is an important but increasingly rare virtue in modern society. The program is led by Stephen, grandson of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black.

The initiative funded by Ms. Smith strives to foster both open-mindedness and conviction in students as they learn to engage in responsible, active citizenship.  

Ms. Smith modeled that kind of citizenship not only through the $5 million gift to the University, but also through another gift and foundation.  The J. Craig and Page T. Smith Scholarship Foundation was set up with an initial $10 million gift, with an additional $30 million to follow, to administer the foundation’s First in Family Scholarships. The scholarships provide a college education for students in the state of Alabama. What makes the fund unique are the student qualifications. Students with a minimum of a “C” average or above are eligible, as long as they have a commendable record of service or assistance to their family.

Ms. Smith explained that while stellar students have many opportunities, other students can’t reach their academic potential in high school because they hold jobs or take care of younger siblings. These other activities should be taken into account when awarding scholarships, she said. Five of the 20 recipients of the 2005 First in Family Scholarships chose to attend The University of Alabama.

As with business ethics, her father set the example for Ms. Smith by providing scholarships for mill workers’ children, some of whom were first-generation college students. While the First in Family Scholarships will not be limited to first-generation students, the foundation will probably give preference to those who are, according to grant program director Ahrian Davis Tyler. 

Besides being motivated by the desire to honor her parents and turn the tide of business corruption in America, Ms. Smith desires to help Alabama’s young people.

“I don’t have any children of my own,” she said. “The children of Alabama are my children.” Through her generosity to Alabama students, she proves that fairy godmothers truly do exist.

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