Dubbed "academies of the apocalypse" in news outlets, U.S. business schools have been under fire since the 2008 economic meltdown. Despite the compulsive rash of handwringing and ethics-course revisions that break out after each new crisis, business ethics is still marginalized as a "soft" subject in too many schools, while the schools themselves are often viewed as "rapacious," self-contained silos within their own universities, according to author George Brenkert of Georgetown University, who spoke at the Business Ethics Conference for Deans of Catholic Schools of Business in April. Meanwhile, he observed, the "business ethics Groundhog Day" of scandal and ineffectual response continues.
That might be about to change: Deans and faculty from 23 Catholic universities gathered in Houston for the invitation-only conference, which was jointly hosted by University of St. Thomas-Houston’s Center for Faith and Culture and the Cameron School of Business.
Spurred by the sobering moral, cultural and academic implications of the 2008 crisis — and guided by Pope Benedict XVI’s call in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate (Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth) for financiers to "rediscover the genuine ethical foundation" of their work — the three-day conference was convened to explore ways to better prepare graduates of Catholic business schools for the ethical challenges they will encounter in the workplace and invite deans to more fully incorporate Catholic teaching in their programs, organizers said.
Cardinal Turkson’s Remarks
"How do you create the ethos of a Catholic business school? — this is the issue," said Spiritan Father Donald Nesti, the director of the Center for Faith and Culture. "We as Catholics speak strongly about social justice, but the need to learn to address the root causes of economic justice in very practical ways has become intensely pronounced over the past decade in the culture of the business world."
That issue is receiving attention from Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Although the cardinal couldn’t be in attendance, he had prepared remarks for the occasion, which were delivered to the deans and those in attendance by his assistant, Jesuit Father Michael Czerny.
Father Czerny said core principles of human dignity, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity and stewardship should inform the perspective and decisions of business leaders, so "they produce goods that are truly good and services that truly serve."
Business educators, Father Czerny continued, are thus called to form students who "learn an integrated life" of faith and work, equipping them to "speak up courageously and act as needed" in a culture that often emphasizes the notion that "ethics is costly, while cutting corners is profitable."
To help participants understand the severity and breadth of the ethical challenges facing new MBA grads and discern more effective strategies for teaching business ethics, the conference featured academic best-practices presentations, a review of the principles of Catholic social teaching and insights from both business executives and industry whistleblowers such as Enron’s Sherron Watkins.
Ethics are easy to discuss in the classroom, but "getting them right in the real world" is a formidable challenge, contended Bethany McLean, co-author of bestsellers such as The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron and All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis.
To begin with, a complex, insidious and all-too-human mixture of self-delusion, egoism, insecurity and greed lies behind most financial scandals, McLean observed. "It’s rarely as simple as a bunch of people sitting in a dark room plotting to take down the company."
Meanwhile, most entry-level MBA graduates are ill-equipped to identify and navigate ethical dilemmas in the workplace, McLean said. Trained to focus relentlessly on profit maximization and legal compliance, they consider themselves lowly industry "cogs" until they tragically discover "the law is random," and "the cog becomes someone who spends time in jail," referring to the fact that mid-level employees are often the ones who take the fall in cases of corporate scandal.
If business schools can teach students there is a big difference between what is legal and what is ethical, ground their discussion of ethics in practical case studies and even help them "re-conceptualize" business as a means for human development rather than simply considering "the religion of the bottom line," the long-term impact of such broader perspectives can be "enormous," McLean said later.
Business as a Vocation
Catholic business schools have both a distinct advantage and grave responsibility in teaching ethics, said speaker Michael Naughton, director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minn., who co-published the Vatican’s text Vocation of the Business Leader: A Reflection.
Ethical values deeply rooted in the Church’s rich theological and philosophical tradition "should pervade everything" at a Catholic business school, Naughton said, providing a truly "transformational" education that teaches students to approach business as a multidimensional vocation characterized by "good works, good goods and good wealth."
As Winston Churchill famously noted, "First, we shape our institutions, and then they shape us," observed Naughton’s colleague and renowned business ethicist Kenneth Goodpaster, who also spoke at the conference.
Cameron School of Business Dean Beena George said Catholic business schools should be distinguishable by their "purposeful attempt" to form students who demonstrate "thoughtful awareness" of how to apply business competencies in a way that reflects Catholic teaching and Tradition, principles of social justice and the idea of business as a values-based vocation.
"That’s the key difference between secular schools and Catholic or faith-based schools," George said.
On the last day of the conference, deans convened in roundtable discussions to explore practical ways to more effectively teach business ethics in their schools based on current gaps and challenges.
Each group reported its findings to the whole assembly. Business faculty need more formation, incentives and resources to convey not only the principles, but also the "decision point" application of ethics, several groups reported. Others noted that Catholic business schools should actively collaborate both with other departments and universities to fully integrate and distinctively reflect Catholic social teaching in their curricula.
Curricular and pedagogical game changers such as The Vocation of the Business Leader and speaker Mary Gentile’s "Giving Voice to Values" program — an innovative approach developed at Harvard that teaches students how to act on their values in the workplace — are invaluable resources in these efforts, many deans noted.
A white paper outlining the complete findings and recommendations of the conference will be released by the Cameron School of Business, as will a call for follow-up conferences.
"Hopefully, this will be the beginning of an evolution in the way that business ethics is taught," said University of St. Thomas-Houston business ethics professor and conference organizer John Simms.
"We cannot afford to fail — the headlines tell us the damage that is incurred when we do."
writes from Houston.