Reframing 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 that which is scientifically rigorous. The trend, which began 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. 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.

An 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." 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.

This is just the beginning of a wave of change that is taking place in business education. Business deans and faculties are searching for ways to enrich the moral education that is offered in MBA programs. Creating a Manager's oath is a promising start, as are efforts to broaden the ways we train business leaders. The use of literature is an intriguing idea that has a track record of success. The "new normal" of business has not yet been codified, but one thing seems certain--the purpose of business as defined by Friedman appears to be changing. Maximization of shareholder wealth alone doesn't feel compelling in this day and age, and it certainly doesn't capture the imagination of market participants. With all due respect to fiduciary responsibility to company shareholders, we need something grander, more compelling, and more sustainable. It is time for practitioners and academics alike to work together to create and live out such a framework.


John Terrill is the Director of The Center for Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University. He earned his MBA from the Kellogg Graduate School of Management and theological degrees from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. John consulted with the Hay Group, an international human resources consulting firm, co-directed the Open for Business Conference at the Urbana 06 Missions Convention, and served as the National Director for Professional Schools Ministries with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship.

Christian Evangelical Protestant


1/1/2000 5:00:00 AM
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