Is Greed Good?
Reframing Business Education
Jeff Van Duzer, Dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University, challenges those at the intersection of Christian faith and business to redefine "the bottom line." In our program, we "think of profit generation and return on investment as fundamental, as critical, as necessary, but not as the end of the operation. It's what you need to do in order to attract the capital from shareholders that will enable the business to do what it should be doing, which is to serve..."2
We don't have this worked out perfectly and readily admit that these ideas need empirical testing. But given the current environment, we feel less alone these days than we did just a few short years ago. One interesting development in reforming business education has been a grass-roots campaign to install a Hippocratic-like oath -- an integral component of medical education -- to the field of management. An oath for aspiring business leaders (see www.mbaoath.org) has gained momentum across the United States. This past year, 400 graduating students took the oath at Harvard Business School. And other programs, like Thunderbird, a highly-ranked global school of management in Arizona, have taken similar measures.
The campaign for an MBA oath dates back to 2004, when Ángel Cabrera, president of Thunderbird... suggested that his students write one. It soon became an official part of the school's MBA program. The oath, Mr. Cabrera says, has been "a phenomenal change-management tool." Students constantly use it to question things they are taught, he says, citing those who took a faculty member to task for breezily asserting that paying bribes is a normal part of doing business in India.3
These initiatives are important and should be applauded. Business students must recognize, like doctors and lawyers, that they are part of a profession with shared values and aspirations. And their actions in the marketplace should be held to such ideals. But these efforts are just the beginning. We need to rethink the entire business school experience, finding ways to define the moral imperative of business education.
One place to start is to find ways to counterbalance a long-term trend in management education that largely defines successful business training as scientifically rigorous. The shift, which many believe took place in the 1950s in response to a negative report from the Ford and Carnegie Foundations, was intended to strengthen lackluster faculty performance and narrowly-focused, vocational-oriented education.4 But, as often is the case, the pendulum may have swung too far in this direction. Aspiring business leaders are often trained as compartmentalized clinicians rather than whole persons who assess both the analytical and social implications of business decisions. In the pursuit of rigor, a corresponding and unintended depersonalization process has occurred. A student's ability to hedge currency risk may have greater value than engaging in honest conversation about doing the right thing.
One approach that might contribute to reversing this trend and that has had some success at MBA programs around the country is the use of literature to teach business ethics. Harvard Business School has taken a leadership role in this process. As Sandra Sucher, a senior lecturer at HBS explains, "through the novels, plays, short stories, and historical accounts, students are brought much closer to life as it is really lived, certainly closer than in lecture learning and even closer than in case discussion."5 Through literature, students are forced to live less as clinicians and more as whole persons, seeing in characters of fiction and figures of history all the strengths, weaknesses, and fatal flaws that make us vulnerable in a world of moral complexity.