Old boy helps in ethical revamp

February 6, 2004

America's pre-eminent business school has launched an intensive course in ethics in the wake of widening corporate scandals, some involving its own alumni.

Harvard Business School has had some kind of ethics instruction since it was founded in 1908, and its faculty has been working to revamp the programme since the early 1990s. Other business schools, including those at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dartmouth College, have introduced or expanded their ethics programmes.

Lynn Paine, a Harvard business professor who helped design the course, said the high-profile misdeeds of the likes of WorldCom, Parmalat and Enron - whose former president, Jeffrey Skilling, is an HBS alumnus - "really put an exclamation point before what we were doing. I think it's fair to say that they accelerated the project".

The ethics course, which was introduced last month and will be a requirement for all first-year MBA candidates, represents the most sweeping restructuring of ethics instruction in the school's 95-year history.

The course, leadership and corporate accountability, is being taught by ten faculty members from various disciplines to nearly 900 students. And while Dr Paine points out that "it isn't all about corporate scandals", it uses Enron and WorldCom as case studies.

The class covers ethical issues around globalisation, organisational change and executive compensation - a particularly touchy subject in a pro-management business school known for catapulting many of its graduates into high-level, high-paying positions.

"What we really hope is that students will come through the course having a much better understanding of the responsibilities they assume by being leaders," Dr Paine said.

Ethics study began to be intensified at US universities during the 1990s, an era of privatisation, globalisation, deregulation, hostile takeovers and advances in technology.

Dr Paine said that business students who lived through that decade "are much more sophisticated and much more appreciative of the significant impact that the companies they lead can have on the broader world.

"I do sense in the students this idea that we have the potential here to really build outstanding organisations," she said. Having watched the corporate meltdowns "sort of gave them a sense of purpose that we can go out and do a better job", Dr Paine added.

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