Do universities instill integrity?

by Peter Frost

and Bryan Keogh
The definition of the “right” decision in corporate America is growing ever more complex.
Affirmative action, sexual harassment policies and environmental-protection groups continually redefine how companies conduct business and what it means to act ethically in the workplace.
The duty of instilling ethical standards into tomorrow’s businesspeople falls on the shoulders of colleges everywhere, the Carlson School of Management included. Whether they’re fulfilling their expectations is questionable, but then again, so are the expectations.
Textbook business ethics appeared on business-school radar screens in only the past 20 years. The emergence of powerful interest groups in the 1980s has forced companies to answer publicly to pollution issues, employee rights and socially responsible investing.
Many of today’s businesspeople weren’t taught how to deal with anything more than profits, revenues and shareholder value — leaving ethics out in the cold.
“The poor businessmen are out there getting hammered by ethics. Anybody can get caught with an ethical charge these days,” said Dick Barnett, an Oregon business consultant and author of “Re-Ignite Your Business.”
Barnett’s maxim: “Don’t do anything that you don’t want to read about on the front page,” he said.
But defining good ethical behavior is difficult. Ethics are often grounded in one’s personal values system.
Barnett said taking responsibility for one’s own actions is key to ethical behavior. “In the end, you are responsible for every decision you make,” he said.
The Microsoft case is an example of a business ethics test.
A federal judge ruled last week that Microsoft founder Bill Gates behaved unethically in many of his business practices.
While building his monopoly, Gates employed illegal practices that hindered competition, which subsequently impeded potential consumer benefits and innovations in the software market.
Regardless of whether his actions are questionable or not, business students might use Microsoft as a model for corporate success. The fruits of Gates’s tactics would overshadow any nefarious deeds he might have done.
Carlson School of Management, like numerous other business schools around the nation, is trying to combat poor ethical behavior by incorporating ethics throughout their curricula.
“It’s not just business ethics that are important either,” said Jerry Rinehart, director of undergraduate studies at CSOM, “It’s total ethics — we really wouldn’t have much of a society if there weren’t any ethics.”

Undergraduate program
The Carlson School currently doesn’t have a class that deals strictly with business ethics, but one of its undergraduate requirements is to complete the “Citizenship and Public Ethics” portion of their degree requirement.
Fulfilling this requirement entails taking one College of Liberal Arts class.
Rinehart said the main reason the Carlson School doesn’t offer an ethics class is that every class should include some study of it.
“If ethics isn’t almost predominant in everything we teach, we aren’t covering the issue very well. We don’t need an ethics course because we try to emphasize it in every class,” Rinehart said.
“It’s ridiculous to say that a program without an ethics course isn’t good at teaching ethics,” he said.
The closest thing CSOM has to an ethics course is a class titled “Business Policy: Strategy Formulation and Implementation.”
The goal of the required class is to coordinate all of the curriculum into one course with a series of case studies — some based specifically on ethics issues.
While professors think ethics is satisfactorily covered in the Carlson School’s arsenal of undergraduate classes, some students disagree.
“I think that the only thing we are really learning is the textbook definition (of business ethics),” said Lucas Hagness, a CSOM junior.
Hagness expressed disappointment that the undergraduate program lacks an ethics requirement. He said learning to make responsible decisions will better prepare students for real-world situations. So far, he hasn’t been satisfied with his experience in Carlson School classrooms.
The absence of an ethics requirement is “a direct reflection that the MBA program takes precedence over the undergraduate program.
“The MBA program is the one that will boost national rankings, and isn’t that what is most important (to CSOM) anyway?” Hagness asked.
But not all students were as dissatisfied with the undergraduate program.
Angela Mans said some of her courses have stressed business ethics. The Carlson School junior said it’s important to continue integrating ethics into most courses, but would like to see one course devoted to business ethics.
Mans said although most professors probably have an interest in teaching good ethics, she also feels they should be careful what they teach students by bringing in guest lecturers.
“I’ve had guest speakers who have made it no secret of their philosophy of doing whatever it takes to maximize their own profit and make themselves look good — at anyone’s expense,” Mans said.
Many other business schools also have no undergraduate ethics requirement.
Both the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Wisconsin-Madison business schools only offer ethic courses as electives.

MBA program
While the undergraduate curriculum doesn’t offer an ethics course, the Masters of Business Administration program requires students to take at least one.
One such class, “The Ethical Environment of Business,” is aimed at teaching the causes and consequences of ethical behavior.
The course covers modern business topics like fairness in employee selection and race issues, as well as philosophical views on ethical behavior.
Although the course focuses on the question, ‘What is ethical in corporate America?,’ the main topics covered deal with how to be ethical under the law.
Even though this course is required, professor Alan Fine said “professors need to take it upon themselves to teach ethics.”
Fine said every class should have an ethical and an environmental component to it. He thinks business and the environment cannot be separated.
He said professors teaching the ethics isn’t enough alone. Students must choose whether they want to take a vested interest in applying the ethics they are taught.
“A school can create an awareness, but it cannot control (a student’s) actions,” Fine said.
The MBA ethics requirement is uncommon in business schools and many feel the Carlson School is fulfilling its obligations, he said.
“Among our peers in the Big 10, we are doing fine,” said Alfred Marcus, chairman of the department of strategic management and organization at the Carlson School.
The University of Wisconsin requires its MBA students to take a six-week ethics course.

Bryan Keogh and Peter Frost welcome comments at [email protected] and [email protected]