The recent Oscar winning documentary, “Inside Job,” along with media coverage of the irresponsible side of business have not helped boost management education’s image. Hollywood has used this as a popular theme in films throughout the years, particularly in the 1987 film, “Wall Street” and its recent 2010 sequel which focuses heavily on the reckless behavior, e.g. insider trading, of business executives that eventually led to the economic crisis. The main character of the film, Gordon Gekko, has become the archetype of the ruthless, profit-driven businessman, worried only about his own self-interest with no regard to social responsibility. Even though the film came out when many of today’s MBAs were mumbling their first words, it is difficult to find a student pursuing his or her business or MBA degree who does not know what this character embodies or who he is.
However, contrary to the dominant media message, my work at AACSB suggests substantial interest, innovation, and investment in the area of business ethics. I’m the newest member of the AACSB research team and was pleasantly surprised to learn about the amount and quality of good work by business schools in this area. Unfortunately, their work has been easy to miss since it lies deep below the surface. It doesn’t make the news reel or help bloggers to attract comments, likes, and retweets. It is an inside job. For example, our own surveys help us to count the number of schools that have a major or concentration in ethics, social/environmental responsibility, sustainability, or non-profit management. That number has risen. But these data do not capture the much larger number of schools and programs that have expanded the role of ethics throughout the curriculum. Nor do they show the rise in the proportion of programs requiring courses in ethics; a number the Aspen Institute Center for Business Education, Beyond Grey Pinstripes reports has increased from 34% in 2001 to 69% in 2009 amongst schools responding to their surveys. The emphasis on ethics is definitely growing, and that suggests business schools have been taking serious action to promote ethical and responsible behavior among their students.
AACSB accreditation standards have long mandated that ethics be a part of the business curriculum. A growing number of business schools are incorporating a socially responsible mindset into their school’s culture through curriculum revisions, projects, and course requirements, even at the undergraduate level. For example, a recent AACSB Ethics and Sustainability Spotlight highlights the Building Ethical Leaders Using Integrated Ethics Framework (BELIEF) program at Northern Illinois University, where undergraduate business students are exposed to various methods and tools to help them become more ethical decision makers; students must even pass an online test covering the contents of an ethics handbook in order to register for subsequent courses. Another example of business students displaying “do-good” behavior, practices, and ambitions is found among participants in the Foundations of Management and Entrepreneurship (FME) program at Babson College, where freshman year students learn social responsibility and business acumen in addition to the basic business disciplines (accounting, finance, marketing, and management). Student teams invent, develop, launch, manage, and liquidate a business, while also volunteering for a non-profit organization throughout their spring semester. At the end of the semester each team donates its profits to that organization.
An abundance of tools for incorporating ethics into the curriculum have become more available to business schools. AACSB’s Ethics and Sustainability Resource Center Tools page provides links to many, such as CasePlace.org, which is organized by the Aspen Institute Center of Business Education and provides teaching materials (free of charge) to business school faculty (as well as other faculty, students, and professionals). Members can exchange ideas and materials, comment, and add content. Another similar noteworthy initiative is the Giving Voice to Values curriculum, which “helps students identify the many ways to voice their values in the workplace. It provides the opportunity to script and practice in front of peers, equipping future business leaders not only to know what is right, but how to make it happen.” And, it is also free to faculty!
As it is inevitable that instances of corrupt behavior will arise among some business leaders, even MBA graduates, for the most part business schools have shown responsibility in addressing ethics. Whether in joining initiatives like the Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) that inspires and champions responsible management education, research, and thought leadership globally, or urging recent business graduates to maintain social respect and responsibility in their work and personal lives (recently reported in Bloomberg Businessweek), business schools have worked hard to steer students in the right direction.