Soapbox

October 24, 2011 12:24 am

Promising students

Boom and bust are the bread and butter of business schools. An economy that is heading into recession is good news for business schools, as it is likely to mean a rise in applications – and fee income.

Ironically, it is times when the economy is booming and companies are thriving that business schools really feel the pinch. This is when busy managers often eschew full-time degree programmes to concentrate instead on growing their businesses.

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But are the attitudes of business school professors and students towards the subject of ethics equally cyclical?

When the credit crunch hit and Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, collapsed in 2008, unethical bankers were held up as responsible. And, as everybody thinks, all bankers have MBAs. So clearly, the odd false assumption aside, MBA students must be unethical.

Business schools and MBA students reacted with pleas of innocence, nowhere more so than at Harvard Business School, where students went as far as developing the MBA Oath.

On graduation, individuals pledged to serve the greater good and act with the utmost integrity. The movement caught the mood of the time, and similar schemes were established in business schools around the world.

That first year of the oath at Harvard, in 2009, more than 500 of the graduating class signed the document. The oath website now boasts more than 6,000 signatories and the instigators of the pledge even wrote a book about their experiences.

But by 2010, the number of HBS’s graduating class that signed the oath had dropped to about 300. This year, it fell again to just 220.

So has the enthusiasm for clamorous declaration faded, or are people just using other means to channel their protestations? Was the oath ever anything more than a fad or a passing fashion?

Personally, I have always had a problem with oaths such as this. I have long suspected that this was just my cynical British hack reaction. Every time I thought about it I was reminded of one of my grandmother’s favourite sayings: “Never trust a man who says he is honest.”

My other major concern has always been that it is divisive. The oath has real implications for those who choose not to sign it. Does it mean, for example, that they are unethical? Or does it mean they, like me, simply feel uneasy about such a process?

When I mentioned the MBA Oath to a new colleague recently, her comment was perhaps the most instructive of all. “Well,” she said, “it doesn’t really mean anything, does it?”

But what makes the oath so unworkable is that it is primarily a declaration about the individual student.

I cannot help feeling that this is because it is US in origin, where the individual “I” tends to take precedence over the collective “we”.

In fact, it is very difficult for an individual to make a real “ethical” difference in a company if the corporate culture is set against such a course of action. More particularly, it is impossible to do so if the remuneration structure and the promotion, hiring and firing of individuals is based on a series of premises that do not “serve the greater good”, but only the good of the organisation, its directors or shareholders.

That is why, when I talked recently to Max Anderson, one of the authors of the MBA Oath, I was pleased to hear him say that one of their focuses now was on talking to corporations and trying to inculcate them with the ethos of the oath. Perhaps that will help. Let us hope so.

But here is my question to business schools: if they are running programmes for the greater good, how do they justify charging such exorbitant prices for their executive MBA programmes? A decade ago, when Columbia and London Business School launched their EMBA Global course, it was billed as the first $100,000 programme. At the time, there was outrage at the high cost. Yet schools now regularly charge $150,000 or more.

Is it ethical when such high prices are likely to preclude the participation of those working for charities or non-governmental organisations, for example?

This, of course, does not answer my original question. Are ethical standards scrutinised and promoted only in times of malpractice – when people get caught out? And will the MBA Oath make a comeback? If we hit a double-dip recession, perhaps we will find out sooner than we hoped.

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Who is signing the pledge?

At the time of going to press, 6,272 people from more than 250 business schools around the world had signed the MBA Oath. To read the pledge in full go to mbaoath.org

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