Soapbox

November 30, 2012 7:24 pm

Academic institutes must adopt a socially responsible attitude

Business schools must strive to be best for the world

In the recent Global Forum on Sustainability in Rio de Janeiro, in which more than 2,500 businesses discussed their responsibilities, one of the key speakers noted: “It is no longer enough to be the best in the world. We now have to be the best for the world.”

Indeed, some large multinational companies are undergoing substantial transformation, with many leading the way on strategic corporate social responsibility (CSR) and creating shared value. Consumer awareness and government policy and legislation are having an impact on chief executives and employees so that they either proactively or reactively make this shift. Being best for the world resonates with employees, consumers and other stakeholders.

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As such, business schools cannot continue to act as if it is “business as usual”. The time for serious introspection is overdue. Business school leaders, deans and faculties need to ask; what is the responsibility of the academic institutions charged with educating future business leaders?

For many years businesses have followed the Milton Friedman school of thought, believing that the only social responsibility of business is to maximise share value. As such, the sole social responsibility of business schools is to produce MBAs who will maximise profit. Even when the business world was drifting away from this notion, business schools were slow to follow. Instead of leading the way towards the required social change, business schools are barely catching up. They teach corporate social responsibility. They do not teach academic social responsibility, at least not enough. To do social responsibility business schools must behave ethically, endorse sustainability, become more socially inclusive and demonstrate integrity in all we do.

Business schools everywhere measure the success of their alumni by the number of positions of power they have secured and their salary levels. The emphasis of business education has been on finance and marketing, with people skills considered to be soft skills and therefore less important. Business ethics and corporate social responsibility have been seen as, at best, a nice-to-have elective.

Business schools often teach students about stakeholder management, but do these institutions really manage their own stakeholders well enough? To be responsible, the schools need to engage in a conversation with their students and alumni, the business sector and governments, so that they can be best for the world.

Students are a business school’s most important stakeholders but their voice on these matters is not always heard. A recent study I conducted with the United Nations-supported Principles for Responsible Management Education (PRME) found that MBA students now have different expectations of their educational institutions. Students stressed the importance they now attach to studying ethics and corporate social responsibility. In fact, most of those surveyed, especially women, believed that business should put legal and ethical responsibilities ahead of profit making.

Business schools have only recently started to rethink their role, not only in business education but also in the global community. Globally, there are more than 400 business schools committed to the PRME principles. However, business schools still need to ask some fundamental questions: what is their mission? What impact should their graduates have on the community, society and the world? How do business schools assure the development of leaders who will not only do well, but also do good?

Finally, should business schools really aim to be the best in the world (and to be highly ranked) or should they aim to be best for the world? It is time to start the conversation and find the answers.

Dr Debbie Haski-Leventhal is a senior lecturer of management at Macquarie Graduate School of Management, Australia and the faculty leader of global citizenship.

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