B-School Ethics Receive Renewed Scrutiny

The tsunami-sized turmoil slamming Wall Street and beyond has many observers railing against greed and a lack of ethics in the corporate world. If the top brass from AIG, Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns and their ilk hold MBAs from the most prestigious schools, what does that say about the state of ethics today?

On September 24, a panel of Darden faculty offered context and explanations for the current financial crisis.  One panelist, professor Alec Horniman, suggested that drifting from bedrock principles of sound leadership and ethical decision-making has triggered a financial implosion that may yet top a trillion dollars. “If you lose sight of yourself and drift, it leads to the consequences we have now. It’s about having the courage to say, ”˜this is the right thing to do,’ and then doing it. You and I had better understand the system that got us here.”

B-schools have long had an ethics component in their curriculums, usually taught by the philosophy department almost as an afterthought. But the times, they are a changin’.  The recent Scoretop.com scandal found that 1,000 prospective MBA students had paid $30 to get a sneak peak at live GMAT questions before taking the exam. And in a striking blow against would-be cheaters, GMAT testing centers will now use an unfudgeable palm scan to indentify testers.

The George Washington University School of Business recently announced that it has revolutionized its MBA programs by launching the first curriculum in the country fully imbued with theories and practical applications on ethical leadership, corporate responsibility and globalization.

“For many MBA students, the driving factor is the money. But we thought we had a responsibility, as a university, to really work on their character, as well,” says Murat Tarimcilar, associate dean of graduate programs and one of the chief architects of the new curriculum.

Is it too much to hope that personal character is developed a bit earlier…in grammar school, perhaps? Even private, Christian-based schools like Hankamer School of Business at Baylor University don’t get a free pass when it comes to teaching ethics. When asked if it’s really possible to implant a moral compass in students, Dr. Mitchell J. Neubert, Chavanne Chair of Christian Ethics in Business, says “Yes, to an extent, it is.  Exposing students to ethical models and questions, deliberating over ethical dilemmas and interacting with faculty and practitioners who choose to model ethical leadership can raise a student’s ethical I.Q.”

For now, we have no way to measure whether B-schools are producing ethical leadership, not just skilled leaders. Unscrupulous behavior isn’t a 21st century phenomenon, and it seems likely ethical temptations will always filter through the global marketplace.

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