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Human Rights Leader Wendy Orr Inspires Pitt Community

The University of Pittsburgh community was inspired by the weeklong visit of Wendy Orr, MD, the powerhouse leader in human rights who shared her experiences as the inaugural Executive-in-Residence for the Africa Business Initiative of Pitt Business.

Dr. Orr spent May 1-6, 2023, meeting with various Pitt schools and departments, sharing her two decades of experience in transformation, organizational culture, and diversity work. Of note, she served as a commissioner on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose purpose was to promote national unity after the fall of the apartheid regime. She witnessed many abuses during her career as a district surgeon and is most known for having provided detailed records and testimony to the Supreme Court of South Africa. Most recently, she was the head of Group Inclusion for the Standard Bank Group, South Africa.

“My visit to Pitt was an opportunity to engage with faculty, staff and students about a range of issues, including the South African transformation, human rights, professional ethics, and diversity, equity, and inclusion,” Dr. Orr said. “The weather may have been cold, but the welcome was always warm!”

She added: “I was reminded of how important it is to connect academic institutions across borders and geographies, because the conversations are so much richer when these diverse perspectives are brought to the table. I was also fortunate to see some of Pittsburgh with the Community Engagement team and concluded the week with a visit to Fallingwater, which was breathtaking. I am looking forward to a continued relationship with the University.”

Human Rights and Business Ethics

Paul Harper, the clinical assistant professor leading the Africa Business Initiative, said: “It has been a dream working with Dr. Orr. We met at a luncheon on Constitution Hill in Johannesburg, South Africa, and immediately agreed to explore this opportunity. There is a recognized need in the field of business ethics for work that ties together the painful historical record of identity group experiences of disrespect and dehumanization and the imagination of a more just future for all. Dr. Orr is the embodiment of that hope.” 

The Africa Business Initiative, announced in April 2023 as an extension of the University’s Pitt Embraces Africa effort, is designed to raise the visibility of African business leadership and achievement in business school networks. Plans are underway within the Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration to establish new global partnerships, student mobility programs, and faculty research and teaching exchanges.

Dialogue Across Campus: Perspectives

As an Executive-in-Residence, Dr. Orr met with Pitt faculty and staff of various schools and departments. She and Harper are also co-creating a series of business case studies that will explore ethical leadership through the lenses of moral development and traditions, organizational identity, and human rights.

The following are comments from participants in the events with Dr. Orr (listed alphabetically):

Ariel Armony, PhD, Vice Chancellor for Global Affairs: “Having the opportunity to welcome Wendy Orr, an outstanding defender of human rights, is a privilege for all of us at Pitt. Thank you to Dr. Paul Harper and Dr. Catherine Koverola for making her visit such a success.” 

Betsy Farmer, Dean, School of Social Work: “It was wonderful to have a chance to have Dr. Orr here and to hear how she wrestled with, and dramatically affected, the moral and political issues that confronted South Africa then — and that have so many connections to the issues confronting both of our countries today. It is always good to see behind the headlines and dramatic changes in world events to recognize the importance of individuals who follow their own beliefs and moral compass to truly make a difference.”

Catherine Koverola, Interim Director, Center for African Studies: “One of our foci at the Center for African Studies is the decolonization of education across disciplines, so we were incredibly thrilled to have Dr. Orr as a guest on campus and provide remarks at our conference. She’s truly a woman of courage, a champion of justice and decolonization across South Africa and the African continent. I know that our students were as inspired by her story as I was.”

Chenits Pettigrew Jr., EdD, Associate Dean for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, School of Medicine: “Dr. Orr is an example of the courage to turn compassion into action. The dialogue gave students the opportunity to witness what it means to live the Hippocratic Oath.”

Jennifer Petrie-Wyman, EdD, Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives, Pitt Business: “In dialogue with Pitt Business staff at a leadership breakfast, Dr. Orr shared powerful experiences about resilience, transformative justice, and the importance of truth in overcoming racial injustices in business and society. These lessons have direct application to the work we do at Pitt in growing a more diverse, equitable, inclusive, and racially just institution of higher education and in our efforts to prepare our students to be future change makers and ethical leaders across businesses and organizations. We are thankful for the opportunity to learn from Dr. Orr’s human rights advocacy and corporate leadership.”

Frits Pil, Distinguished Service Professor, Professor of Organizations and Entrepreneurship: “It was truly a privilege to directly hear from Dr. Orr about the profound significance of recognizing, listening to, and affirming victims of racial injustice. Her invaluable experience imparts essential lessons for corporate leaders: The challenges we face, both as a society and within individual companies are wrought by, and wrapped up in, history. Co-creating spaces for conversations about race and reconciliation with the past, are foundational to developing a climate of psychological safety, employee thriving, and ultimately organizational learning and innovation.”

Rys Shultz, Administrative Assistant, Center for African Studies: “Every discipline tries to answer similar questions but if we’re intersectional, we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. We don’t need a separate business solution and an engineering solution and an anthropological solution for every problem society faces. Being interdisciplinary increases mutual respect, understanding, and increases our capacity to enact effective solutions.”

Ann Thompson, MD, MHCPM, Vice Dean, School of Medicine: “Dr. Orr’s work as a very young physician was extraordinary! None of us is confident we would have been so brave in the situation she confronted. Her continuing commitment to South Africa over time in spite of daunting challenges is similarly inspiring.”