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A New School of Thought on Ethics

After a two-year string of corporate scandals, the term "business ethics" has become reliable fodder for late-night talk-show hosts in search of easy laughs. Now, the Business Roundtable (BRT) aims to restore public confidence in Corporate America with a $3 million initiative to educate future CEOs in business ethics.

On Jan. 14, the BRT, an association of 150 CEOs of leading U.S. companies, announced it was creating a new business-ethics center. The Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics will be housed at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.

PROXY WARS. The BRT hopes to deflect criticism of CEO excesses by developing a B-school ethics curriculum as well as train execs and conduct research. "Setting and maintaining the highest ethical standards starts at the top," says BRT Chairman Henry A. "Hank" McKinnell, who also is chairman and CEO of Pfizer (PFE). The new center will help execs "maintain a cutting-edge culture of ethical business practices within our organizations," McKinnell says.

The initiative also is fodder for the BRT's campaign against the Securities & Exchange Commission's proposal to give shareholders new power to nominate directors to corporate boards. Business leaders fear the proposed rule could result in costly, divisive proxy fights and special-interest directors who would promote the agendas of certain shareholders. The BRT has argued that opening up the proxy to shareholder nominees isn't necessary because companies already are responding vigorously to investor concerns about corporate wrongdoing.

The institute will draw on faculty from a cross-section of top b-schools. It will offer two training sessions for top execs this year, the first to be held in June in Washington, D.C. By Amy Borrus in Washington, D.C.

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