Can Business Schools Really Teach Ethics?

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I can’t remember which class I was in (I think it may have been finance or maybe microeconomics) when our professor finished going over the exact lapses in moral judgments on the part of many fine, intelligent, successful business people (most of whom have MBA degrees) that largely contributed and led to the precarious economic situation and financial crisis in which we find ourselves still today. I watched as students around the packed room nodded their heads knowingly, probably having heard a similar telling countless times in classes, having read it over and over in newspaper articles, and maybe even repeated it themselves as part of academic conversations regarding business in America. But when our professor then turned the question to us, “knowing what you know now, would you make similar choices if it meant you would get a bigger bonus and move up in your job?” a fair number of students were raised their hands to say yes, they would. I was shocked that such people were willing to openly admit that they would have no problem contributing to another financial meltdown for the promise of personal wealth and power.

Our professor didn’t try to dissuade these people, in fact, we didn’t discuss the topic any further and moved on in our studies. A recent article from Fast Company called Business Schools Add Courses On Ethics, But Are Graduates More Ethical? suggests that this may be the problem. Just because business students are now mostly required to take some course exclusively focused on “ethics,” most of the Zicklin students I’ve talked to think these courses are jokes. They tell me that they don’t believe a person’s ethics can be formed or changed by a course in business school. I have my own wildly optimistic opinions on this, but the article suggests (as many others have) that to truly have an impact on the business leaders of the future, business schools must have ethics permeate through every course taught, including mainly quantitative courses like accounting. I agree with this – should ethics be permeating every thing we do, if we are to be ethical people? It should at least be part of the conversation, even if it is an argument over what exactly is ethical and what is not. The Zicklin School could use an ethical-overhaul, and as the article suggests, this begins with rewarding professors who do embrace discussions of ethics in their class and encouraging other professors to step up their ethics game. The next time I’m in a business school class and the professor asks who is willing to act unethically for money and power, I hope the number of hands raised is far fewer than I saw before.

If you are also questioning the ethics of business school, further interesting discussion can be found here:

2 Responses to “Can Business Schools Really Teach Ethics?”
  1. Emily, you are lucky to even have the word Ethics mentioned in class. Correct me if I’m wrong, but Ethics should be a part of every single class at Baruch. All syllabi that professors have handed to me pay some lip service for the AACSB. However, almost without except there is no discussion in class save BUS9100.

    With that being said, lecturing a bunch of figetty, half-starved MBA heads about what shouldn’t be done, is a waste of breath. Integrity and ethics are what you have when no one is looking. Lecturing is useless to build those qualities. Experiential learning is the only hope — actual experience of having the proverbial cookie jar before you and no one is watching you. Honestly now, tell me –if you have a take-home exam with instructions not to collaborate, honestly, really, how many students really wouldn’t talk to one another. Cheating is rampant in schools (from students to complicit administrators — see Atlanta) and Baruch is no exception.

    I know that I know nothing, but this I know, what we are doing now isn’t working.

  2. Sal Chiarelli says:

    Emily, I remember having this conversation on business ethics with you last year and I’m glad you wrote on this subject. I support movements such as the MBA Oath project, but I feel that the point of the oath is entirely missed by many business students. As a show of solidarity with Zicklin, I believe SPA should have an MPA Oath to demonstrate a return to ethics and moral responsibility to the public/nonprofit sector.

    Some say that the film Wall Street is Baruch College’s most viewed movie, often with the connotation that the business students admire the “greed is good” philosophy. It is no surprise that the character Gordon Gekko is based on an actual Baruch MBA student, Dennis Levine, who went to jail in the 1980s for insider trading. It was after that embarrassment to the college that Baruch began to require classes on ethics. However, there is no evidence to suggest that an ethics class can help develop moral character late in life at graduate school.

    – Sal

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