Carlson sets an ethical example

The Carlson School ethics program has evolved into one of the best in the world.

Bryce Haugen

Some professors write books. Others submit papers for review. But most, unlike professor Norman Bowie, have never created a new field of study.

Inspired by philosopher John Rawls – an acquaintance from the American Philosophical Association – who popularized applied ethics, Bowie and five other professors decided to promote integrating ethics into business education.

Working part time at 63, the recently retired University philosophy professor teaches business ethics courses to masters students at the Carlson School of Management, overseeing a program that has received national accolades.

From hosting an annual ethics conference to drafting a professional code of conduct and offering unique international courses, “we’ve built a pretty good (ethics) program,” said Bowie. He has been the Elmer L. Andersen Chair in Corporate Responsibility since 1989, when he came to the University from Delaware.

“No one (part of the program) is necessarily unique,” he said from his home on the eastern shore of Maryland following a trip to the Carlson School’s Warsaw, Poland, program. “But when you put them all together it looks pretty impressive.”

During Bowie’s tenure at the University, business ethics education has evolved from virtually nothing into one of the top programs in the world, he said.

In its Oct. 24 issue, BusinessWeek ranked the Carlson School as having the sixth best business ethics education program in the world. The school placed 29th out of 30 top business schools worldwide in Beyond Grey Pinstripes, a biennial ethics survey.

Three professors teach ethics at the Carlson School, including Alfred Marcus, who leads a two-week trip to Costa Rica to study sustainable development.

Professor Ian Maitland teaches The Ethical Environment of Business (MBA 6315), a required course for Carlson MBA students.

The case study-based course, which meets for half a semester, tackles tough, business-related questions, he said.

“It’s not a class in morality. We’ll leave that to the philosophy department,” said Maitland, just after wrapping up the first class of the term. “It tends to deal with issues that might arise in the workplace or marketplace.”

During the rest of the semester, the class will look at the ethical elements of outsourcing, foreign bribery and other issues with “topical flavor,” Maitland said. And for its final project, the class will look at Wal-Mart’s business practices.

Nimit Mehta, a third-year MBA student, took the same class last semester from former USWest executive Ron James, president of St. Paul-based Center for Ethical Business Culture and one of the Carlson School’s two adjunct professors who teach ethics.

Mehta said he liked the class because it explored the gray areas of ethical dilemmas.

“How to identify whether you are in an ethical situation and then know what to do about it – that was the goal,” he said.

Students can also fulfill their ethics requirement on a two-week trip to London and Brussels, Belgium. Bowie, who is set to start working on the eighth edition of “Ethical Theory in Business” – used nationally and considered by many to be the world’s leading business anthology – will lead the trip.

Second-year MBA student Tim Reiner went on the trip in May to study the differences between American and European Union business ethics. The class visited several companies and nongovernmental organizations.

Reiner is president of the University’s Net Impact chapter, a 40-member group that promotes business ethics through hosting faculty debates and speakers, participating in national ethics conferences and sending a team to a sustainable business competition each year.

Truth in Business, launched amid a wave of corporate scandals, also promotes ethical business practices – but with a biblical bent.

President Nolan Soltvedt said the group’s 30 members try to “take the focus off of money and promotion and success, in career-terms of the word, and put it back to your life, your work-life balance and your faith.”

Several students questioned whether ethics can even be taught.

A person needs to have a sense of personal ethics or they won’t learn business ethics, Soltvedt said.

Kathryn McGlinsky, a California State University-Chico international economics senior who is taking University classes this semester, said she plans to go into business, but has never discussed business ethics in her classes.

“I can’t imagine what they’d teach you that most people don’t know already,” she said.

Bowie said business ethics classes serve a useful purpose. Personal ethics are important, however, business ethics courses teach students how to apply personal morality to real-life business scenarios, he said.

“I remind my students that I’m not here to preach,” he said. “This is a management course. What I’m teaching them is how to manage ethical issues.”

Before “fading away” into retirement, Bowie said, he wants to integrate business ethics into all Carlson School curriculum, and perhaps require a course for undergraduate students.

But, he said, he knows that might not be enough.

Back in the late 1980s, he said, accounting firm Arthur Andersen spent $5 million to help business schools integrate ethics. Fewer than 15 years later, executives from that company were convicted of helping Enron “cook its books.”

“Here’s what we can’t do,” Bowie said. “We can’t make people ethical if they take our course, but you really can learn things about ethics in business.”