Is Education the Answer on Ethics?

Our recent article on where business morality fits in B-school curriculums drew a wide variety of responses, sampled here

What do readers of BusinessWeek Online's B-Schools channel make of this year's lapses in corporate ethics -- and of our coverage of the subject? Responses to our June 13 story, "Where Can Execs Learn Ethics?" illustrate the rich variety of reactions.

A number of B-schools let us know how much they've been doing to turn out MBAs with strong ethics. At the same time, readers from the U.S. and abroad weighed in demanding more attention to business ethics as a discipline. Of course, that sentiment wasn't unanimous: Some readers felt that if B-schools emphasize ethics more in their curriculums they'll only create ghettoized courses fated to fall by the wayside, much as many e-commerce initiatives have. Here are edited versions of the some of the messages we received from readers:

Brian Hindo's June 13 commentary was no surprise to me. I believe that every time we have some kind of ethical crisis in Corporate America, BusinessWeek does its piece on the "lack of ethical training" in U.S. business schools. How trite! Your premise that ethics should, or even could, be taught in schools of business is questionable at best, irresponsible at worst.

Ethics are personal and well-defined early in life. The best a business school can do is to try to get students to consider a broad range of stakeholders in the decision-making process. However, that is a far cry from teaching them right and wrong. Maybe [Enron's Jeffrey] Skilling and [Andrew] Fastow are just bad guys. Of course, maybe if we had just taught them right and wrong while they worked on their MBAs, Enron never would have happened. Come on!

Patrick R. Rogers, PhD

Associate Professor of Strategic Management

School of Business & Economics

North Carolina A&T University

Greensboro, N.C.

Congratulations on a great article! Business ethics has been a long-ignored subject in many top business schools around the world. I found that out while researching B-schools to attend back in 1995. Out of 30 top schools, only Notre Dame's literature contained some emphasis on business ethics (and that's why I went there).

The Mendoza school's ethics curriculum was very strong, and the subject was embedded in many of the other "core" courses. I obtained knowledge and tools that have helped me avoid, resist, and discourage unethical behavior in all business dealings, something that has greatly helped my career in corporate finance. It's clear to me (and to many Notre Dame MBAs) that ethical decisionmaking isn't just the right thing to do but also adds great value to shareholders.

Victor A. Trujillo, MBA

Financial Analyst

ChevronTexaco Corp.

San Francisco

Your article refers to "religious-affiliated schools." As such a school, Duquesne University has a commitment to ethics and values in all of our educational programs. Nowhere is this more evident than in the business schools at Duquesne.

The A.J. Palumbo School of Business Administration (our undergraduate business school) requires that all students complete a business-ethics course for graduation. At the John F. Donahue Graduate School of Business, the attention to ethics is more acute. The faculty recently approved the creation of a required Applied Ethics course for all MBA students, to be taken in the first semester of their program. Finally, the Beard Center for Leadership in Ethics offers a number of programs for executives seeking to be educated about ethics.

In sum, there's much an executive can learn about ethics at Duquesne University. Does this mean that all Duquesne alumni or participants in our programs will be ethical in all of their actions for the rest of their lives? No! It is unrealistic to expect business schools to cure people of unethical temptations or actions. But we -- as well as many other B-schools -- do provide resources, forums for discussion, and courses seeking to promote ethical decisionmaking and behavior in business.

Jim Weber, PhD

Professor of Management

Director, Beard Center for Leadership in Ethics

Duquesne University


I appreciated your article in BusinessWeek Online. In Norway, we are building a new Center for Sustainable Leadership, knowing that a course or two in ethics is not solving any of the deeper problems in business. As long as everything seems to be focused on the creation of shareholder value (as seems to be the case in the U.S.), we are risking too much in our societies in the years ahead.

Roald Nomme

Kodal, Norway

Good article! It left me with disturbing reflections though. Why do ethics have to be cost-justified? In our early upbringing, we were all, I suppose, instructed and shown exemplary behavior indicating why ethics were essential to good character and humanity. When our kids challenge us on our ethical posture, should that discussion focus on the rate of return, cost-benefit, or net present value of simply doing the right thing? Have conscience and morality been laid off, outsourced, or taken the buyout package?

I for one refuse to accept money/profit as the highest arbiter of all values. We adults cannot reject moral behavior for its own sake, [while demanding] that from our children.

Michael Forde

Toronto, Ont.

I find it hard to hold business schools accountable for a lack of ethics education. The reason that ethics education is lacking is that students have no immediate desire for it at the expense of "hard" skills that recruiters seek. Telling business schools to make their students "eat their vegetables" is counterproductive. This is because of the rankings rage that has struck in the last 10 to 15 years, of which BusinessWeek is the prime instigator [BusinessWeek publishes extensive rankings of B-schools every two years].

Business education has moved from an education model to a student-as-customer model. Just as in a restaurant, if your customers don't like spinach and they don't want to buy it, you don't force it on their plate. Students respond to such attempts at broader education by lowering the scores [they give their schools] on annual ranking surveys. It's as if a child could dock their parents' salary for making them eat their vegetables. In the case of B-schools, lower survey rankings mean less tuition revenue, corporate support, and so forth.

Where business schools should be accountable is in management-education leadership. That means creating a curriculum that meets the immediate needs of recruiters as well as broader goals, such as ethics. That means suffering through the short-term pain of student complaints for being exposed to ethics, negotiating skills, and other disciplines that are less tangible than how to do a color scheme in PowerPoint. It also requires corporate support for B-schools to be more than job shops and to value education over vocation.

As far as the glacial pace of academics is concerned, the issue is whether B-schools should focus on the latest fad or concentrate on the pervasive foundations of business education. The risk in B-schools following the latest fad is evident in the rapid rise and demise of e-commerce graduate programs.

Ron Cenfetelli

Vancouver, B.C.

(The writer is a PhD candidate in business administration at the University of British Columbia and has an MBA from Indiana University)

I'm a Harvard Business School MBA, 1974, and yes, while you're right that we didn't have conscious discussions of ethics at that point (and probably not for Skilling either in '79), you need to make yourself aware of the clarity of vision that [current] Dean Kim Clark has about alumni, students, and the school. He specifically states that the school's mission is to create leaders who make a difference. And that difference is not in how scurrilous one can be.

You spoke about rapid response to recent events. In April, HBS pulled together a full day of academic discussion on Enron to see what went wrong. There were several cases written and analyses done.... At a dinner in late April, the dean was asked whether Enron was just a confluence of events that would never happen again or something else. He said, no, it was not a perfect storm. HBS profs had found systemic causes and were working on the academic response to such findings.

Joan Mokray

Partner, Bartholdi Partners

Franklin Lakes, N.J.

I just received my MBA from Loyola Marymount University in Southern California. My experience is different than you described in your article.

In addition to a very active Business Ethics program, many of my professors discussed the topic as part of a bigger picture -- whether talking about management strategy, marketing, or data-mining. One professor in particular should be highlighted: Dr. Arthur Gross-Schaefer, business-law professor, who is a lawyer/CPA/rabbi. As issues and rules were discussed, so were ethics and values.

Ironically, one of the things I was taught in my finance class (a year before Enron) was how risky (and stupid) it is to buy stock in the company you work for: From a diversification aspect, it's a nightmare. No one mentioned that to Enron employees, obviously.

A lot of attention is paid to Harvard and Wharton, and rightly so. I just wanted to let you know about a little school doing its part.

Jeffrey Levine

Director of Business Affairs

Montana Artists

Santa Monica, Calif.

I very much enjoyed your article on teaching business ethics in MBA programs. I myself have taught business ethics at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and elsewhere, and agree it is underrated by students and schools alike.

One of the reasons for this neglect, in my view, is an unfortunate tendency to view "business ethics" itself in rather narrow terms, as, I think, your own article tends to do as well. A narrow view falls along the lines of how to make sure future business professionals don't do bad things.

However, business ethics, like ethics in general, is a much broader discipline that deals with questions of the larger purposes and functions of business in our society. It asks, for example, how the demands of shareholders can and should be balanced with [those of] other "stakeholders" in the business world such as customers, employees, and communities. Or it questions the proper balance in the courts between business protection and consumer rights.

If the business community, as well as business schools and students, could understand that "ethics" has to do with a wide array of crucial questions about business relationships and other parts of the social context in which business operates, perhaps business ethics as a subject would stand a better chance -- and not come up just as a reaction to major scandals.

John Wall, PhD

Department of Philosophy & Religion

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, N.J.

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