Business Academia Grapples with ‘Ethical’ Curriculum

Posted by on May 9th 2013 @ 5:46 pm

originally published in The Gould Standard (NYU Stern newspaper)
July 27, 2014

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It must have been difficult to be a business professor in the fall of 2008.

“It was [a bit] like having a child who ends up in prison,” said Rebecca Angeles, a Canadian business professor at the University of New Brunswick (UNB). Rob Austin, dean of the business faculty at UNB, described the post-crisis fallout as one filled with “soul searching” about “whether we’ve gone too far”: “We’ve produced people who know how to use exotic derivative instruments in finance, but don’t necessarily think much about whether it might wreck the economy.”

Despite Ms. Angeles and Mr. Austin’s remorse, the reality at the time of the crisis was that many leading business schools had pre- existing ethics and corporate social responsibility, or CSR, programs in place.

For example, NYU Stern first introduced its Business & Society Program back in 2003. More formal mechanisms of oversight were also in play. As far back as 1998, an annual report entitled “Beyond Gray Pinstripes,” published by the Aspen Institute, examined the inclusion of socially responsible management topics in MBA curricula.

The novel impact of the recession was to exacerbate the need to re-evaluate the importance that business schools place on such topics, e.g. ethics and CSR.

This impact was especially felt amongst undergraduate business programs, whose administrators worried that their students’ lack of exposure to the humanities would hinder their overall personal and intellectual development. This idea was formalized in a much- publicized book, “Rethinking Undergraduate Business Education: Liberal Learning for the Profession” (2011). The book centered on a Carnegie Foundation study which found that “Business programs rarely challenge students’ assumptions, ask them to think creatively, or understand the broader context of business.”

Three years after the crisis, the world of business academia continues to grapple with how to incorporate dimensions of ethics and CSR into the curriculum. This past April, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the worldwide leading accrediting agency for business-schools, again announced heightened standards regarding ethics requirements.

“Schools must show how they are committed to ethical behavior as institutions, as well as how they are embedding this behavior in the learning experience,” said Linda Livingstone, dean of Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business & Management and member of the AACSB’s committee on accreditation quality.

NYU Stern continues to grapple with and address this problem, in part by recently making a few high-profile hirings.

Last year, NYU Stern hired social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to develop a course called Ethical Systems Design. Haidt’s recent work on morality and politics has garnered him a regular slate of op-ed columns in outlets like TIME magazine and The New York Times, and a lighter- toned guest appearance on the popular show “The Colbert Report.”

This past February, NYU Stern also hired the formidable attorney and humanitarian advocate Michael Posner to establish “the first-ever center on human rights at a business school.”

Given the unsettled nature of this debate over ‘ethical’ business school curriculum, it came as a surprise last year when the Aspen Institute decided to cease the continuation of its “Beyond Gray Pinstripes” survey. “We’re claiming victory,” said Aspen’s Laurie Ginsberg, manager of the institute’s Business & Society Program. “The things we were celebrating and highlighting have become baseline in many programs across the globe.”

One hundred and forty- nine business school programs participated in Aspen’s final Pinstripes survey. Other thought leaders in the space are not sold on this victory.

In a recent op-ed for the Global Times, Sir Richard Lambert — former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry and the present chancellor of University of Warwick — called on the world of business academia to do more: “Academics themselves should be doing more to shape the debate, through their research and their writings…[Business school graduates] need big new ideas and fresh thinking about their roles and responsibilities.”

Another oft-cited criticism about current ethics and CSR programs are their relative isolation within the broader curriculum. For example, some question how effective a CSR course can be when the students are not considering such issues, e.g. human rights and labor ethics, in their global operations courses.

C.B. Bhattacharya, the CSR program head at the European School of Management and Technology, has articulated the need for such programs to “build linkages to other disciplines” and “integrate sustainability through the entire curriculum.”

Maybe increased pressure from high-profile donors, who are often the source of funding for these CSR programs, can speed this development. Media titan Michael Leeds recently donated $35 million to create a Center for Education on Social Responsibility at his alma mater, the University of Colorado.

Drawing on his first-hand experience grappling with the gray area of business ethics, he said: “If you say [the students] have to take a class in ethics, that’s good, but it doesn’t impact the students’ thinking unless they talk about it in relation to management or accounting and how it fits in with the values in other classes.”

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