Reframing Business Education

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.

Another interesting approach has been launched by the Aspen Institute's Center for Business Education. Giving Voice to Values, an ethics and leadership curriculum developed by the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program, with the support of the Yale School of Management, "focuses on ethical implementation and asks the question: What would I say or do if I were going to act on my values?" Self-assessment, effective ways to raise values-based issues, scripting and practicing values-based conversations, as well as coaching and peer reviews are important distinctive of this innovative approach.

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 "new normal" of business has not yet been codified, but one thing seems to be 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.

[Please note that this is a piece of the Faith@Work Consultation at the Evangelical Gateway: http://evangelical.patheos.com.]


1Scott, Alwyn (2009, May 29). Questions for Jeff Van Duzer. Puget Sound Business Journal Online. Retrieved from http://seattle.bizjournals.com/seattle/stories/2009/06/01/story10.html

2(2009, June 4). A Hippocratic Oath for Managers: Forswearing Greed. Economist.com. Retrieved fromhttp://www.economist.com/businessfinance/displaystory.cfm?story_id=13788418

12/1/2009 5:00:00 AM