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May 15, 2009
Contact: Jill Jess, University Relations, (785) 864-8858.

Graduation stories: Financial background, philosophy doctorate could be perfect pairing

Kara Tan Bhala

LAWRENCE — An ethical system dating to the days of Aristotle might be just what is needed to rebuild the global economy, according to a University of Kansas student.

A longtime Wall Street manager, consultant and expert in the economics, politics and financial markets of Asia, Kara Tan Bhala is graduating this month with a doctorate in philosophy. The unique combination of philosophy and business could be the perfect pairing in this economic climate.

“The financial system has collapsed under the weight of its own greed,” Tan Bhala said. “What was missing in the last 20 years is ethics.”

Virtue ethics focuses on traits such as courage, fairness and generosity. While it is traced to Aristotle and Plato, it has come back into vogue as a field of philosophical study. But Tan Bhala said the current economic system makes it difficult to embrace these virtues.

“It’s hard to be courageous in a situation where the whole culture is about moneymaking,” she said.

Tan Bhala left Wall Street and the East Coast financial scene in 2001. She and her huband, Raj Bhala, Rice Distinguished Professor, moved to a small farm outside of Lawrence. And while she sometimes misses the hustle of Wall Street, the change has been good for the soul and allows her time spent in peace with their daughter, now a third-grader at Raintree Montessori School in Lawrence.

After moving to Kansas, Tan Bhala opened Seven Pillars Consulting, offering services focused on economics, politics and financial markets in Asia. She is chief executive officer. She also lectures in the School of Business.

Her background, coupled with her current academic pursuits, have impressed her professors.

“Who would believe a successful hedge fund manager would pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy and crown her academic achievements with a dissertation on virtue ethics?” said Richard De George, University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy. “The rare combination of the apparently contradictory requisite interests and talents for such a feat is personified in Kara Tan Bhala.”

A native of Malaysia, she returns regularly to visit family. She is fluent in written and spoken Malay and Indonesian as well as spoken Cantonese and has a basic knowledge of Mandarin. She became a U.S. citizen in 1997.

Tan Bhala moved to London in 1979 to attend City University. She earned a bachelor’s degree in systems and management in 1982, a master’s in management studies from Oxford University in 1986, a master’s in liberal studies from New York University in 1994 and a master’s in philosophy from KU in 2006.

With her doctorate complete, she plans to relax a bit. But she also wants to continue consulting, specializing in business ethics and teaching on the subject. She’s ready to be part of the solution for the future.

“It would behoove the economy to try a new paradigm, one that is infused with moral values.”

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