Bullish on the MBA

Critics who blame business schools for the financial crisis have it wrong. A few bad apples were the problem, and MBAs are the solution

MBAs are having a tough go of it lately. Critics both in and out of the academy are pinning the blame for the current financial crisis on the failure of business schools to instill a strong ethical sense in graduates. Philip Delves Broughton, who wrote about his two years at Harvard Business School in Ahead of the Curve, calls the financial mess B-schools' very own Waterloo, and MBAs themselves "guillotine fodder."

Are business schools in part to blame for the most serious economic crisis in decades? Perhaps, but my experience both in business and on campus tells me that such reports paint with overly broad strokes and don't adequately portray what is happening today.

The fact is, concerned, ethical faculty recognized and began to address the epidemic of greed and unethical business behavior long before the media gave voice to these issues. The B-school criticism also overlooks the many thousands of ethical managers, most of whom were trained as MBAs, who are providing us with some semblance of stability and hope of recovery from the malignant choices of a smaller number of greedy, self-interested executives.

I entered a graduate business program some years ago with the smug expectation that my real-world experience had taught me all I needed to know. I even felt somewhat self-righteous at having made the leap from the corporate office to the classroom partially in response to a desire to escape some unethical practices I saw going on around me and in which I had no desire to participate.

Teaching Values

My attitude changed as I found myself acquiring job-relevant new skills, gaining exposure to the best practices that spanned organizational, industry, and national boundaries, and giving intense consideration to the application of ethical value systems to management, marketing, and financial conundrums that were far more complex than anything I had experienced or contemplated before.

Responsible business schools have for years nurtured their students' commitment to sound values. Most business school curricula expose them to case studies, experiential exercises, and analyses of the good and bad practices prevalent in the business world around them. The goal: to show students how to arrive at decisions that are socially, financially, and environmentally ethical.

This semester, I am teaching the required cornerstone course in our online MBA program. "Responsibility, Sustainability and Justice," provides an overview of business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and environmental sustainability, and the news in recent months has provided more real-time case studies than I could ever use. We are a Jesuit university, but I know that similar courses are taught in public university MBA programs as well.

If anyone believes ethics is getting short shrift in business school, all they need to do is spend a little time reading over my shoulder. Students in my class are struggling with the complex ethical dilemmas posed by the current crisis every day. One student in my class, writing for a class assignment, understood there are no easy answers:

"More at Any Cost"

"Most lenders indicated that they were trying to help people to reach the American dream—home ownership. In reality, they were bending rules, or just making new ones when the existing rules didn't work for them, in order to maximize profits with little concern for the possible consequences," he wrote. "I also find that the same principle of fairness that relates to the pursuit of easy money was violated over and over by borrowers who, rather than being satisfied with what they could afford, wanted more at any cost."

With students like this one, both here and in other business programs around the nation, business faculty have been looking beyond the obvious labels of perpetrator and victim to identify the infractions of ethical values on the part of many individuals and groups across our economy. They're also suggesting ways to prevent such shameful practices and dire outcomes in the future.

I simply don't share the media's pessimistic view of the prospect of MBA graduates moving into positions of economic leadership in the years ahead. More and more business schools are concerned with ethics and social responsibility. Moreover, given the enormous challenges posed by this recession and its root causes, I'm confident that leaders of those programs that have not focused on ethics in the past are busy revising their curricula.

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