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July 03, 2003

Business ethics teaching not driven by scandals

by Linda Charles
Some may think "business ethics" is an oxymoron in light of recent scandals involving Enron, WorldCom and Martha Stewart.

But College of Business faculty are quite comfortable with the phrase, infusing ethical discussions in nearly every business class, from entry level through the MBA program.

One of the core courses for undergraduates is a philosophy course that deals with moral reasoning and ethics, said Brad Shrader, management professor. Seniors must take a capstone course that ties together everything they've learned, including ethics. Students discuss issues such as executive salaries and retirement funds, and the ethics behind those.

Because ethics always has been an integral part of the Business curriculum, recent headlines have not caused the college to change its instruction, said Anthony Hendrickson, Business associate dean. Philosophically, the Business faculty think it's more effective to spread ethics discussion through all the classes rather than concentrate it in one or two classes.

As a result, nearly every course touches on ethics at some point, Shrader said. For example, in one management class, students are required to review case studies and decide what is right or wrong.

Other courses deal with such topics as the value of audits and accuracy of records, truth and content in relation to customer relations, corporate responsibility and the value of environmentally friendly manufacturing. A well-attended elective in management deals with issues such as the environment, employment, product safety, whistle-blowing and advocacy.

"Ethics is making the hard decisions," Shrader said. "And there is no separate standard for business.

"Our students learn that their decisions do affect others, that what is beneficial to a company may not be beneficial to their self-interests."

Interest on the rise
Both Shrader and Hendrickson agree students are asking more questions about ethics these days.

"Until you have low spots, business ethics doesn't grab people," Hendrickson said. "But after Enron and a number of other companies, people start asking, 'What is good business practice?'"

In the '90s, business practices were much looser, he said, and students who raised ethical questions weren't likely to get peer support. Now, when students raise these questions, their classmates are eager for the answers.

And, said Shrader, "Students who have work experience tend to appreciate business ethics more than those who have just gone through business training."

Shrader points out faculty do not just talk about the "bad cases."

"We also look at the good guys, like (ice cream makers) Ben & Jerry's," he said. "We try to make the case that to build a good company you shouldn't only consider financial health, but also the employees and society."

Hendrickson said there is a "renewed vigor among our instructors to talk about ethical issues in greater depth. The students are asking why things have happened."

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