Look at yourself

Business scandals have led to a boom in ethics courses, and to questions about the academy's role in such lapses, writes Jon Marcus

June 11, 2009

These days, when David Batstone wants examples of unethical behaviour that he can use in his class on social ethics at the University of San Francisco, he doesn't need a textbook. He picks up the morning newspaper.

Scandals in business, government and professional sports - and even accounts of torture - have provided seemingly unparalleled "teachable moments" for academic ethics programmes at US universities. They have also prompted a flurry of new courses and requirements.

"All of a sudden, it has taken on social relevance. It's got currency," Batstone says. "In times of crisis, there's extreme interest and engagement."

On that, US academics can agree. There is fierce debate, however, about whether they themselves bear any blame for ethical lapses that have led to such events as the Bernie Madoff fraud case and the sub-prime mortgage debacle. Some say universities must serve as better examples of ethical behaviour. Most expect the academic spotlight on ethics to fade as soon as the media's attention does.

"Unfortunately, teaching ethics when things like this are not on the front pages is like teaching about dinosaurs ... Business schools in particular have short memories," Batstone observes. He cites the widespread introduction of required ethics courses at the time of the Enron and other corporate scandals in 2001.

"It didn't take longer than 18 to 24 months for those courses to wane."

Professors who teach ethics in US higher education institutions can be forgiven for their cynicism. But they are at least heartened by new attention to the issue, fleeting or not, and are adding to their classes such examples as misdeeds on Wall Street, torture by military and intelligence agencies and the use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes.

"It's not such a bad thing when real life has an effect on campus discussions," says David Perry, inaugural director of the new Vann Centre for Ethics at Davidson College in North Carolina, which is endowed by a manufacturer concerned about the erosion of business ethics.

"There's really never any shortage of real examples. The names and faces change - and the particulars - but society itself creates a sort of full-employment act for ethicists."

Peter Keller, provost and vice-president for academic affairs at Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, thinks it is not enough for universities to look at everybody else. He believes they should investigate their own culpability for ethical lapses.

"Have we in higher education contributed to a culture that is less focused on virtue and the ethical implications of the decisions we make? I think we have to plead guilty on that count," says Keller.

The top administrators and overseers and the middle managers at his institution will be put through an ethics programme this month.

"You have to start at the top," Keller insists, citing decisions about budgets, personnel and student admissions as areas in which morality at universities can go astray. "Teaching ethics is almost meaningless if you do it in the context that doesn't walk the walk."

Arthur Dobrin agrees. A professor at Hofstra University, the institution Madoff attended, he believes that "the better we become at making good decisions and the more doing the right thing becomes habit-forming, the better off we will all be. The present economic crisis is, at bottom, a collapse of ethical values."

Many people in the US are blaming universities for this collapse, and particularly their business schools.

"They've trained students to go out and be successful, but they've defined success simply in terms of the bottom line. So we're going to get the results we get, no matter how many ethics requirements we have," Batstone says. "I call it the nudge-nudge, wink-wink model."

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, the principal accrediting agency for business and accounting programmes, has not sufficiently emphasised ethics, argues Robert Girling, professor at the School of Business and Economics, Sonoma State University, California. "I believe that it will now begin to do so in view of the fact that business as usual has been so discredited," he says.

Leonard Schlesinger, president of Babson College in Massachusetts, which has top graduate and undergraduate programmes in business, calls this view scapegoating.

"There are improvements we can make," Schlesinger says. "But the notion of blaming us - I marvel at the impact people believe that we have. Nobody gave us any credit in all the previous decades when things seemed to be going all right."

Schlesinger's institution is working on new instructional approaches in which students are given not merely case studies about unethical behaviour, but skills to confront and challenge real-world situations.

"Does this attention to ethics give us the opportunity to continue to make substantive improvements in providing skills to our students to make ethical decisions in the workplace? The answer is yes."

But Batstone, who has also founded groups to oppose slave labour and human trafficking, believes that universities should help to change the nature of business rather than just train students to contend with it.

"It's fascinating to me that business schools approach this issue by saying: 'If only we could train our students to make better decisions.' What I'm interested in is how you create better protocols that don't leave it up to an individual, but help make systems more accountable. How do we create better companies or organisations?"

As for students, ethics professors say they are focused on the issue - even if it's from self-interest. "What I see in the classroom is students demanding that academics answer hard questions," Girling says. "They no longer are willing to work for companies that lack high ethical standards because they see that they will ultimately pay the price as the businesses collapse."

Bart Victor, professor of moral leadership at Vanderbilt University, an institution named after a 19th-century monopolist, says he was heartened to receive a note from a former student asking his advice about the ethics of a business decision she had to make. He says: "What I hope they learn is that ethics is a living issue for them. It's their life that they're living, and they can do something about it."

Although many believe that universities' focus on ethics will inevitably wane, some feel that it will stay with students.

Joseph Pastore will this autumn teach a course at New York's Pace University called Corporate Ethics: From Descartes to Wall Street. For years in his ethics classes, he has used a case study about a man who is asked to lie on his first day on the job to make a sale.

"Today students are absolutely adamant that he should not lie. There's a heightened sense of morality," he says. "I would contrast that with ten years ago, when it was 'have lunch or be lunch'. Back then, students said: 'You have to lie.' In the 1990s, they were willing to misrepresent to get the sale. Now you can see the haloes in the classroom."

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