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Business school used to be just about how to make money. These days, it is much more complex.

Following corporate scandals in the US and Europe and rapidly heightening concerns about climate change and corporate social responsibility, business schools are increasingly feeling the need to address these topics on the curriculum. According to research to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Business Ethics*, the take-up of these issues in the world’s top business schools has been impressive.

The 50 business schools surveyed reported a five-fold increase in the number of stand-alone ethics courses in the past eight years, with 25 per cent of the schools requiring students to take a course in business ethics.

Laura Hartman, professor of business ethics at DePaul University in Chicago, and one of the five co-authors of the report, says the results are very positive. “Certainly [the increase] was gratifying,” she says. “On the other hand, it never feels like enough.”

In the survey, deans reported high levels of interest in these topics among students, and this was particularly strong at schools ranked in the top 10.

The research is based on interviews conducted with deans or MBA directors from the top 50 global business schools, as ranked by the Financial Times in 2006. Student demand was only one factor behind curricular development, says Prof Hartman. “Deans are hungry for it, reflecting the hunger in the market.”

The survey asks whether three distinct subjects – ethics, corporate social responsibility and sustainability – are covered on the curriculum, either as a required programme or as an integral part of other programmes. The majority of business schools surveyed (84 per cent) require at least one of the three topics to be covered in the MBA curriculum and one-third of the responding schools said coverage of all three topics was required.

One of the interesting aspects of the results, says Prof Hartman, was the differing semantics used by US and European schools. In the US, academics use “business ethics” as an umbrella term to encompass sustainability and CSR; in Europe, CSR is the umbrella term.

In recent years one of the biggest questions in business schools has been whether these subjects should be taught in stand-alone courses or integrated with other subjects such as finance, accounting, marketing or strategy. The answer, says Prof Hartman, is to do both.

“Overall there is a trend towards a stand-alone programme that is then reinforced by integration with other courses. The most effective [approach] is to teach the tools and strategy and then integrate [the subjects] to reflect the reality.”

Many schools take the approach that teaching these subjects is all part of cultivating and supporting future leaders, she says. “It’s about teaching people how to make better decisions.”

In addition, many business schools have set up centres specifically to deal with these issues. Indeed, 65 per cent of the schools surveyed said they had academic centres related to ethics, CSR or sustainability, intended to give long-term support to teaching in the classroom through research. Schools such as Columbia, Yale and the Ross School at the University of Michigan in the US, and the Ivey School at the University of Western Ontario, in Canada, had at least three centres dedicated to the topic. However, top European schools such as Insead and IMD had just one centre while London Business School had none.

The report also acknowledges some of the more innovative projects that business schools have introduced into their curricula to challenge students. At the Johnson School at Cornell University, for example, students travelled to Senegal and Costa Rica to assist ecotourism businesses, while participants on the MBA at the Smith School at the University of Maryland visited white-collar criminals at a minimum security prison to discuss the consequences of violating business ethics.

Prof Hartman worked with Lisa Jones Christensen and Ellen Peirce of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina and Michael Hoffman and Jamie Carrier of the Centre for Business Ethics at Bentley College, near Boston, to produce the report.

*Journal of Business Ethics: Ethics, CSR, Sustainability Education in the Financial Times Top 50 Global
Business Schools: Baseline Data and Research Directions

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