Business School: Teaching More Than Work Ethic


In an effort to retreat from a recession-trashed job market, students have been applying to M.B.A. programs in greater numbers since 2008. That’s bad news for the many critics who charged that it was graduates of these M.B.A. programs who helped create the recession in the first place. Peddling mortgage loans to credit-poor borrowers and betting on a sure-to-pop housing bubble may have paid off in the years leading up to the financial crisis—and boosted the stock prices of many firms run by people with M.B.A.’s—but they ended up being both harmful to the economy at large and losing strategies for those firms.

Indeed, if you want evidence that there’s a problem in business education today, “the financial crisis is Exhibit A,” says Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. The accusations against business schools are many, but a chief criticism is that educators overwhelmingly focus on short-term profits instead of the long-term consequences of business decisions. “There’s an assumption at a lot of business schools—just do your job, pursue your self-interest, and everything works out,” says Tim Fort, the Lindner-Gambal professor of business ethics at George Washington University School of Business.

Recognizing that they are now under a microscope, many business schools are re-evaluating the importance of business ethics and different methods of teaching ethics. “At some schools, you could be laughed at for raising ethical issues in a finance class. I don’t think that’s the case anymore,” says Fort. As schools add classes that offer guidance for dealing with ethically ambiguous scenarios or introduce ethical sidebars to issues taught in other classes, they are also beginning to include programs not necessarily expected in business school, such as classes on environmentalism.

By no means does everyone agree that a lack of ethics contributed to the financial crisis. “We would still be in this soup if everybody—from homeowner to investment bank to rating agency—had behaved according to the law,” says Richard Shreve, an adjunct professor of business ethics at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. Many of the M.B.A. graduates making bets with credit-default swaps were simply ignorant of the full consequences, not willfully negligent. And there were many other contributing factors to the housing bubble that were out of the hands of most businesspeople, such as the expansionary policies of the Federal Reserve.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, one of the major business program accrediting organizations, has never required business ethics as part of a school’s curriculum. Several schools, such as George Washington, have made it a requirement anyway. Merely teaching business ethics in the classroom is not enough for fundamental change, says Samuelson of the Aspen Institute. “If that’s the only place you raise questions about social and environmental impacts, the message you send to students is that it’s like philanthropy,” she says. “It’s something you do when you’re not focusing on your business.” It takes an overhaul of the curriculum to really change students’ mind-sets, Samuelson argues. The Graduate School of Business at Stanford University, for example, has developed new courses that address the controversies that arise when businesspeople deal with different cultures, such as Google’s policy toward Chinese censorship.

Ethical evolution. This recession was not the first event to change attitudes about business ethics. When Shreve started teaching ethics at Tuck in 1992, his philosophy was that he wasn’t there to change hearts and minds and, say, transform immoral students into moral business leaders. Rather, his goal was to inform students of the ethical dilemmas they might face in their careers. But the backlash against business schools resulting from the 2001 Enron scandal caused him to modify this approach. “The image in the popular press is that the business schools are taking very bright, ambitious young men and women, teaching them sophisticated techniques, and turning them loose, armed and dangerous. But it occurred to me, if we aren’t careful, we could be doing that,” Shreve says. The school created opportunities for students to be exposed to values that they might not otherwise find in their classes.

For example, during orientation week, the school sends all 250 first-year students to work with nonprofits in the community for a day. “You work at a soup kitchen, and it changes you,” says Shreve.

Tuck has also added “global mind-set” as a criterion for its admissions policy. “To be an effective leader in today’s world, we feel you need to understand other cultures,” says Dawna Clarke, director of admissions at Tuck.

Perhaps more significant than changes in the attitudes of administration and faculty are changes in the attitudes of students. Just as the recession has made many people consider alternatives to traditional finance careers, there have been shifts in student interests at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. “You’re seeing students with an investment banking background or tech background who want to hone their business skills but in a way that has social impacts,” says Matthew Nash, managing director of the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship at Fuqua. One program, the Global Consulting Practicum, matches students interested in consulting with organizations around the world in need of help. One such trip sent Fuqua students to the Hope Factory in Johannesburg, a nonprofit that works with unemployed South Africans.

While gaining new experiences outside the classroom might help students, GW’s Fort argues that it is equally important to have different perspectives inside the classroom. He recalls one ethics class where the students were discussing a real-life case in which a cookie manufacturer had a bad product batch that was potentially harmful to consumers’ health. The company had an opportunity to get rid of the cookies and recoup some losses by selling them to a convenience store in the inner city. “Business students were prone to say, ‘Well, as long as it’s free choice and full disclosure, it’s OK,’ ” says Fort. But a non-M.B.A. student who had worked in the inner city as a social worker happened to be sitting in on the class. ” ‘How dare you?’ she said,” recalls Fort. But because business schools are often loath to spend resources on students who aren’t getting M.B.A.’s, “it’s very hard to find someone in your class to provide the jaw-dropping comments,” he says.

So Fort has found other ways to introduce ethics in unexpected places. In the past three years, he has started producing videos for use in nonethics classes. The videos feature Fort talking about the ethical implications of what students are learning in the other subjects.

Fort argues that teaching ethics in business is not about telling students that profits are bad. Instead, he tries to appeal to his students’ desire to make money by stressing that an ethical reputation is often the most reliable tool for business success. As Fort puts it: “In the long term, ethics pays.”


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