B-Schools and the 'Almighty Dollar'

A business school dean argues that students should be taught the societal value of business, not profit at any cost

In his $3.6 trillion budget proposal, President Barack Obama put forth his spending agenda for the next several years. The agenda, unlike those from Presidents of years' past, maintains a salient theme rooted in ethics and moral obligations. In fact, the proposal itself is aptly entitled, "A New Era of Responsibility."

As I listened to the President outline his spending plans, one line in particular caught my attention: "For decades, too many on Wall Street threw caution to the wind, chased profits with blind optimism and little regard for serious risks—and with even less regard for the public good."

As a business school dean, it was impossible to ignore the personal responsibility this statement implied. As someone who has been in the b-school industry for more than a decade at some of the world's leading business schools, I was involved in helping to mold and produce some of the very students who the President casts as having little regard for the public good.

While I suggest an appropriate level of caution in accepting President Obama's statement at face value, he is on to something: Business educators must acknowledge some accountability for the current economic conditions.

Radical Change Needed

The problem is that the education of ethics is not pervasive enough in the business school industry. Corporate social responsibility, ethics, and accountability are all buzzwords that have grown increasingly popular in the post-Enron era, but the reality is that the concepts rarely permeate business school curricula.

Our business students cannot merely spend a minimal period of time in a business class touching on ethics and then be done with it. Rather, our responsibility as business educators is to influence behavior over the long term. This requires a deeper, broader approach to ethics education and a holistic understanding of what corporate social responsibility means in the context of business and society. To do this, business education is in need of a structural makeover.

Just as President Obama intends to make changes in Washington, b-schools are in dire need of radical change. Nearly all undergraduate business curricula in the nation were built upon an educational model that grew out of the 1950s. While this approach was acceptable within a U.S.-centric manufacturing economy, it is no longer suitable within the global knowledge-and-experience economy that students face today.

Teaching the Bigger View

As part of a completely new style of teaching that we've adopted at the Villanova School of Business, students are rigorously challenged in class and presented with modern-day business quandaries. Their reasoning is pushed to the limit to make them come to terms with the full implications of their decision-making instead of a simple, superficial context.

The flagship of the new curriculum is a new, team-taught freshmen course—Business Dynamics—designed around these issues. The year-long, 6-credit course emphasizes the overarching purpose of business within society. The course highlights the skills of effective leaders and underscores innovation and openness to change as fundamental business and personal skills. The rationale for the new Business Dynamics course is simple: Once students understand the overarching purpose of business in society—and start to view challenges in this context—they are on the right track. Functional knowledge not only then makes sense, it serves a larger purpose.

Current conditions and the direction in which President Obama hopes to take the country show that we have to be more serious about these issues in business and higher education. Our students need to understand that as a society, we can't sell out our future for some short-term profits on a balance sheet or short-term gains by some individuals.

In the end, we're not here to change unethical people. That's not our role as educators. But we do have a responsibility to educate young people on the societal value of business, not just the pursuit of the almighty dollar.

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