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The MBA Ethics Debate: Top Schools Tackle Sexual Harassment, NFL Protests, and More

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Should business schools teach ethics and social responsibility? In the past, top MBA programs stuck to a fairly typical curriculum: finance, marketing, accounting, economics. And while those topics still comprise the core of most MBA programs, they’re now only a part of the whole.

Beyond allowing MBA students to focus their studies in areas like entrepreneurship or technology, MBA programs are also taking on some of the most prominent ethical topics of the day, asking students to weigh in on current headlines and happenings. It’s the MBA ethics debate.

According to a United Nations group survey of business school students from around the world, students believe that ethics are a business’s most important responsibility. According to the report, “the exposure to, and teaching of, business ethics does not merely assist business leaders to resolve moral dilemmas. More importantly, it matures their proficiency in moral judgment and their ability to incorporate social issues in the decision-making process and assists them in implementing this in an all-inclusive manner.”

For example, last year a group of business executives—including the CEO of PepsiCo and head of General Motors—got together to dissolve two business councils that consulted with President Trump after insensitive remarks about the white supremacist violence that took place in Charlottesville, VA. And other executives such as the CEO of Patagonia, Yvon Choinard, have been vocal about political and ethical issues—even using their companies to take positions on social responsibility that would typically be considered outside the scope of business.

So, it’s no wonder many business schools have been making business ethics a more important part of their curriculum. The question is, “How should business ethics be added to the MBA curriculum, and how is it being added currently?” It depends on the school.

At Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, Professor Edward Soule teaches courses on business ethics, corporate social responsibility, and leadership. During these classes, he told the New York Times that he has assigned coursework covering a range of trending topics including sexual harassment at Uber, social justice protests by N.F.L. players, and how companies like Amazon have responded when attacked by President Trump.

“Something has changed,” Soule said. “I would be kidding you if I told you there wasn’t a different vibe in the classroom. Ethics and values have taken on more significance. It has to do with all of the things going on in this administration, often things that challenge our understanding of ethics and leadership.”

Georgetown McDonough is also home to the Institute for the Study of Markets and Ethics (GISME), a center that examines the ethical issues inherent in the functioning of a market society. Students, faculty, and researchers who participate in the center explore ethical questions as they relate to business and bring ethical considerations to bear on policy decisions regarding the regulation of markets. These are especially salient issues for Georgetown McDonough given its Washington D.C. location.

“At the McDonough School of Business, we have developed a method of teaching business ethics that includes normative experiential learning, communicates in terms readily understood by business students, and involves actual ethical decision-making on the part of the students,” Michael Douma, assistant research professor and director of GISME, said in a news release. “We have found that our approach results in students being more invested in the course and more committed to resolving ethical issues that confront them in a business environment.”

Another example can be found at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. According to John Hooker, a professor of operations research and business ethics and social responsibility, ethics has been a part of the Tepper School curriculum since the 1990s. “Our program was apparently the first to introduce the topic (1966), as part of a course on business law,” Hooker told us. “The ethics presence has gradually increased over the years, but we ethics faculty often have to fight for it. My view is that a required ethics course should be part of the picture.”

And Leanne Meyer, co-director of the Accelerate Leadership Center at the school, told the New York Times, “There’s a turning point in what’s expected from business leaders. Up until now, business leaders were largely responsible for delivering products. Now, shareholders are looking to corporate leaders to make statements on what would traditionally have been social justice or moral issues.”

As for ethics and MBA students, Tepper’s core offering in Ethics and Leadership is one of the only second-year courses it requires its students to take. The course teaches students how to foster their ability to reason and how to handle the ethical implications of managing organizations and people.

“The basic lesson for MBA students is that business ethics is not optional,” explained Hooker. “It is the basis for the social infrastructure that makes business possible, much as engineering is the basis for physical infrastructure. It requires careful analysis and training, no less than engineering or finance. This is why we need a stand-alone ethics course. Business ethics training teaches us to do ethics with our brains rather than rely on gut feelings. Otherwise, we have no way to reach consensus on the ground rules.”

In the end, there are many options for MBA students interested in ethics, though ultimately it up to the students themselves to raise topics that are pressing to them. “Ethics courses often focus on the hot topics. This stimulates discussion and raises course ratings, but it generates more heat than light,” said Hooker. “I focus on issues that students themselves raise. I also emphasize cross-cultural ethics, because business is global, and norms vary enormously around in the world. U.S. students typically have little awareness of this.”

Whether through case studies, guest speakers, simulations, competitions, or another initiative, the leading MBA programs dive into business ethics and corporate responsibility using a range of approaches. To learn more about Professor Hooker’s approach to ethics, you can check out his blog: Ethical Decisions.

Kelly Vo
Kelly Vo is a writer who specializes in covering MBA programs, digital marketing, and topics related to personal development. She has been working in the MBA space for the past four years in research, interview, and writing roles.