Carlson ethics courses use scandals as lessons

by Nathan Halverson

Historically, Minnesota businesses have had a certain reputation about being more ethical, said Norman Bowie, the Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Corporate Responsibility at the University.

The established kings of industry – founders of companies such as Pillsbury or Dayton Hudson – would invite new CEOs to the Minneapolis Club and explain to them that in Minnesota, things were done in a kinder, gentler way, Bowie said.

This classic regional view is a prevailing reason why the Carlson School of Management has required business ethics courses since 1994, he said.

As this summer’s accounting scandals have left some business schools scrambling to establish ethics courses, the Carlson School has simply provided more material to study, professors and students said.

“We didn’t have to react to the scandals Ö we were already in place,” Bowie said.

Only 18 MBA programs nationwide require students to take an ethics course, according to the World Resources Institute and Aspen Institute, and the Carlson School is one of them.

“You didn’t have to unearth corporate sandals to realize people had social responsibilities,” said Michael Barnes, director of the full-time MBA program.

Yet, Barnes questions whether students can learn ethics as a stand-alone course.

He said he thinks values are specific to every individual, but there must be shared standards. Ethics courses establish these standards by using case studies, Barnes said.

“It’s almost like a live case study,” said Corey Henry, a full-time MBA student. “It gives us a whole new perspective.”

Henry said business professionals will be more skeptical in general and less likely to take financial statements or management rhetoric at face value.

Pete Gamades, a Carlson undergraduate, said he thought the ethics focus would make Carlson students more likely to be whistle blowers.

“It’s beneficial that you do it because it (bad business) hurts a lot of people,” he said. “You don’t want people to get hurt like they have been.”

But Bowie said he is not sure the courses will make students more likely to intercede in cases of wrongdoing.

“Blowing the whistle is pretty dangerous,” he said.

Instead, he said he hopes students will work from the inside to prevent unethical behavior by conveying their knowledge to managers.

“Good ethics often means good business,” he said. “It’s in their interest to act ethically.”

Bowie said he tries to convey the importance of knowing when to act.

“I want them to be sensitive to ethical issues,” he said. “I want them to smell them.”