An Interview with AER15 Keynote Speaker Robert K. Massie IV

PRIM&R is delighted to welcome Robert K. Massie IV, MDiv, DBA, as one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming 2015 Advancing Ethical Research Conference (AER15) to be hosted in Boston in November. On the final day of the conference, November 15, Dr. Massie will give an address titled, “A Song in the Night: Lessons from a Life of Resilience.”

PRIM&R: How did you develop an interest in your field?
Robert K. Massie IV (RM): I am speaking at the conference because of my experience as a person born with a serious genetic illness, classical hemophilia. So I didn’t really “develop an interest” – I was presented from the moment of birth with challenging circumstances, including internal painful joint bleeding, loss of the ability to walk, and, over my life, many other medical complications that I will discuss during my talk.

As I grew, I realized that I was not alone in my medical difficulties; indeed, we are all surrounded by people who go through struggles at different stages in life. And all of us are headed towards diminishment in old age. I also realized that virtually all human beings face unique and deep difficulties – this is a common element that actually binds us as a species. So my experience of weakness and illness helped me develop a strong sense of compassion for others, and a desire that everyone, as a matter of justice, should have access to the same kind of medical care that I was blessed to receive.

PRIM&R: How would you explain your field of study/area of expertise to someone unfamiliar with it?
RM: Given my experiences as a child, I chose a lifetime of activism on many social and environmental issues. I have written extensively about South African apartheid, about corporate responsibility, about finance and shareholder rights, and about climate change, to name a few. I have led organizations that have succeeded in making significant changes in global corporate practice. I believe that it is vital for people who care about ethical issues to find ways to express their commitments through action.

PRIM&R: How does your field of study/area of expertise intersect with the research ethics?
RM: After college I attended Yale Divinity School where I concentrated on social and theological ethics. I received my master of divinity degree and was ordained in the Episcopal church in 1982. I received a doctorate from Harvard Business School in 1989, where I focused on the intersection of ethics and investments, and I taught for seven years at Harvard Divinity School in the field of ethics and social justice. I was one of the first fellows in Ethics and the Professions at Harvard’s Center for Ethics when it was established in 1987. I also served for some time on the Mass General Hospital Ethics Committee.

In all of these areas, I have felt that the academic study of ethical theory must be augmented by a serious commitment to and training in empathy, that is, the ability to establish a caring connection with people whose experiences may be very different from one’s own.

PRIM&R: What do you want our audience to take away from your talk at AER15?
RM: I am going to be telling five stories from different parts of my life that illustrate some of the complex and dangerous challenges that I faced—and miraculously survived. For this I feel grateful to the world, to God, and to the incredibly devoted medical professionals who cared for me tirelessly for decades. I hope that the audience will feel renewed dedication to connecting with patients, colleagues, and others as human beings, and that they will be affirmed by the gratitude that so many of us feel for those who have chosen caring professions.

Robert K. Massie, IV, MDiv, DBA, an ordained Episcopal minister, received a doctorate from Harvard Business School in 1989, where he specialized in corporate strategy and social responsibility. After teaching at Harvard Divinity School for seven years, he became the president of Ceres, the largest coalition of environmental groups and institutional investors in the United States. During his tenure at Ceres (1996-2003), he launched the Global Reporting Initiative, a set of guidelines for corporate disclosure on sustainability that is now in use among 11,000 multinational companies. He also created the Investor Network on Climate Risk, with more than 100 institutional investors with $11 trillion in assets focused on the financial challenges of climate change. In 1998, Dr. Massie published Loosing the Bonds: The United States and South Africa in the Apartheid Years, which won the prestigious Lionel Gelber prize for the best book on international relations. In the midst of all these activities, Dr. Massie faced difficult medical challenges, beginning with severe Factor VIII hemophilia and then when he contracted HIV and the hepatitis C virus later in life through transfusions for his hemophilia. His autobiography, A Song in the Night: A Memoir of Resilience, was published by Doubleday in 2012, and recounts how his childhood illness laid the foundation for a life filled with compassion and activism.