When a new crop of future business leaders graduates from the Harvard Business School next week, many of them will be taking a new oath that says, in effect, greed is not good.
Nearly 20 percent of the graduating class have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” a voluntary student-led pledge that the goal of a business manager is to “serve the greater good.” It promises that Harvard M.B.A.’s will act responsibly, ethically and refrain from advancing their “own narrow ambitions” at the expense of others.
What happened to making money?
That, of course, is still at the heart of the Harvard curriculum. But at Harvard and other top business schools, there has been an explosion of interest in ethics courses and in student activities — clubs, lectures, conferences — about personal and corporate responsibility and on how to view business as more than a money-making enterprise, but part of a large social community.
“We want to stand up and recite something out loud with our class,” said Teal Carlock, who is graduating from Harvard and has accepted a job at Genentech. “Fingers are now pointed at M.B.A.’s and we, as a class, have a real opportunity to come together and set a standard as business leaders.”
At Columbia Business School, all students must pledge to an honor code: “As a lifelong member of the Columbia Business School community, I adhere to the principles of truth, integrity, and respect. I will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” The code has been in place for about three years and came about after discussions between students and faculty.
In the post-Enron and post-Madoff era, the issue of ethics and corporate social responsibility has taken on greater urgency among students about to graduate. While this might easily be dismissed as a passing fancy — or simply a defensive reaction to the current business environment — business school professors say that is not the case. Rather, they say, they are seeing a generational shift away from viewing an M.B.A. as simply an on-ramp to the road to riches.
Those graduating today, they say, are far more concerned about how corporations affect the community, the lives of its workers and the environment. And business schools are responding with more courses, new centers specializing in business ethics and, in the case of Harvard, student-lead efforts to bring about a professional code of conduct for M.B.A.’s, not unlike oaths that are taken by lawyers and doctors.
“I don’t see this as something that will fade away,” said Diana C. Robertson, a professor of business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s coming from the students. I don’t know that we’ve seen such a surge in this activism since the 1960s. This activism is different, but, like that time, it is student-driven.”
A decade ago, Wharton had one or two professors who taught a required ethics class. Today there are seven teaching an array of ethics classes that Ms. Robertson said were among the most popular at the school. Since 1997, it has had the Zicklin Center for Business Ethics Research. In addition, over the last five years, students have formed clubs around the issues of ethics that sponsor conferences, work on microfinance projects in Philadelphia or engage in social impact consulting.
“It’s been a dramatic change,” Ms. Robertson added. “This generation was raised learning about the environment and raised with the idea of a social conscience. That does not apply to every student. But this year’s financial crisis and the downturn have brought about a greater emphasis on social ethics and responsibility.”
At Harvard, about 160 from a graduating class of about 800 have signed “The M.B.A. Oath,” which its student advocates contend is the first step in trying to develop a professional code not unlike the Hippocratic Oath for physicians or the pledge taken by lawyers to uphold the law and Constitution.
Part of this has emerged by the beating that Wall Street and financiers have taken in the current economic crisis, which can set the stage for reform, Harvard students say.
“There is the feeling that we want our lives to mean something more and to run organizations for the greater good,” said Max Anderson, one of the pledge’s organizers who is about to leave Harvard and take a job at Bridgewater Associates, a money management firm.
“No one wants to have their future criticized as a place filled with unethical behaviors,” he added. “We want to learn from those mistakes, do things differently and accept our duty to lead responsibly. Realistically, we have tremendous potential to affect society for better or worse. Let’s humbly step up. We are looking out for our own interest, but also for the interest of our employees and the broader public.”
Bruce Kogut, director of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Company Center for Leadership and Ethics at Columbia, said that this emphasis did not mean that students were necessarily going to shun jobs that paid well. Rather, they will think about how they earn their income, not just how much.
At Columbia, an ethics course is required, but students have also formed a popular “Leadership and Ethics Board,” that sponsors lectures with topics like “The Marie Antoinettes of Corporate America.”
“The courses make people aware that the financial crisis is not a technical blip,” Mr. Kogut said. “We’re seeing a generational change that understands that poverty is not just about Africa and India. They see inequities and the role of business to address them.”
Dalia Rahman, who is about to leave Harvard for a job with Goldman Sachs in London, said she signed the pledge because “it takes what we learned in class and makes it more concrete. When you have to make a public vow, it’s a way to commit to uphold principles.”
* By LESLIE WAYNE, NYT, May 30, 2009
* 20% of Harvard’s MBA students signed it?? I’m not even sure if I can call that “a good start.” Naturally, the majority of the students, regardless of oath, will go on to lead lives in which they show at least a moderate degree of compassion towards their fellow humans…but in a field marred by ethics scandal after scandal after scandal, for a mere 20% to swear an oath of ethical practice is still embarassing, even worrisome. Imagine if 20% of medical students at a school were to accept the Hippocratic Oath. Would we be proud of those 20%, or shocked at the other 80%? The reality remains: significant further reform – years, if not decades – is necessary before the business sector will regain the trust it has spent decades losing.
— David, Ithaca, NY
* Experience is a wonderful teacher. None of these new graduates have it and I doubt they will gain the moral bearings they need to fulfill their pledges working for Goldman Sachs and Bridgewater Associates as their first ‘real’ jobs.
When I earned my MBA 40 years ago this month we didn’t even think about greed. I don’t remember it ever being mentioned.
These kids need to work for small businesses where the decisions they make will materially impact the value of the business and the lives of every employee associate.
After they learn how to take care of their colleagues and their customers, then they can consider meeting the pledge obligations at a larger firm where the experience they gained will truly serve the larger human cause.
— rlk, chappaqua, NY
* Isn’t it insulting for grown men and women to have to promise that they won’t lie, cheat, or steal? It’s like asking young doctors to promise out loud that they won’t fondle their female patients, or young lawyers to promise that they won’t forge documents. If young businessmen feel a need to make promises like that, it’s an appalling indictment of the management environment they’re going into.
— Schigolch, Bernalillo, NM
* My name is Max Anderson. I’m one of the student organizers of the MBA Oath. I want to thank everyone for reading the article and posting your thoughts. It is eye-opening to read some of the more cynical and pessimistic remarks. Perhaps the reputation of MBAs is even worse than we feared. Perhaps we have all the more reason to push for this. Some of you have said that it is the system that is corrupt and we can’t change it. Maybe you are right, but we are actually looking for long-term systemic change. We know this isn’t the total answer. Far from it. There are no silver bullets. But we have to start somewhere. Why not start by stating our values and aspirations. Sure it will be hard to keep these. But if it weren’t hard it wouldn’t mean anything.
Making an oath on graduation day isn’t like saying “abracadabra” and magically everyone is always ethical all of the time. The real test will be the thousands of decisions we make in our careers when we have to put our necks on the line for our values. However I don’t think these are empty words. Making a marriage vow a guarantee that a marriage will stay together. Yet we still believe in the power of marriage vows. A public commitment can be powerful.
A few of you have asked “why the other 80% haven’t signed.” Well we just got started this week. We graduate next week. We expect the number will rise, we’re already closer to 30%.
— Max Anderson, Cambridge, MA
* Recently, sitting at a bar in Philadelphia, I was subjected to a loud conversation by three young men who were either Wharton students or recent graduates. The outburst by the most inebriated of the bunch was dedicated to his role models in the business world. At the absolute top were Michael Milken and Jeffrey Skilling.
I felt sick and it was not the beer.
Stiffer sentencing and enforcement are what’s needed instead of some juvenile pledges.
— BB, PA