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New MBAs vow accountability

Business school graduates pledge to practice social, economic, and environmental ethics in their careers.

By Staff writer / July 27, 2009

LEAD BY EXAMPLE: Harvard Business School 2009 grads created the MBA oath, which drew more than 1,300 pledges by students and alumni from schools around the world.

Brian Snyder/Reuters

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As they approached graduation, some Harvard Business School students had a simple goal: Find 100 classmates willing to put their names to an "MBA oath." They would pledge to "act with utmost integrity" and to "strive to create sustainable economic, social, and environmental prosperity worldwide."

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The oath took off – not just at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., but around the world. (Read the full oath here.) By the June 4 commencement, more than half of the nearly 900 Harvard MBA graduates had signed on. By late July, the total had since risen to 1,427 students and alumni from scores of business schools, ranging from the University of Alabama to Singapore Management University.

In the wake of the financial meltdown, the MBA degree has lost its swagger. But these students hope to rescue its reputation and quell the public's wrath. Their efforts are part of a broader
effort to professionalize management by setting higher standards, akin to those agreed upon by doctors and lawyers.

"It was kind of just the perfect storm of people really yearning for this and thinking, ‘I'm absolutely willing to stand by these principles,' " says Teal Carlock, a recent Harvard MBA graduate who helped draft the oath. His peers are eager to go public with their values, he says, to counter the perception that all business people operate with a "greed is good" philosophy.

The movement has encountered its share of skeptics who say the oath won't make a difference. "Those who are morally strong don't need the oath, those that are not won't honor it," one commenter wrote on BNET, a business website.

For David Hammons, an MBA candidate at Missouri State University in Springfield, the problem is the preamble's first line, which reads: "As a manager, my purpose is to serve the greater good...."

"In that statement, this oath has ceased to be an oath advocating capitalism," Mr. Hammons says. "It means that my individual pursuit of happiness is not ethical." The notion of the "greater good" has too often been abused, he says, citing the Cultural Revolution in China as one example.

Such dialogue highlights "a deep fundamental difference about what the purpose of the corporation is and whether it has any responsibility to society other than maximizing profits," says Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard business professor whose writings on professionalizing management have informed the student oath. It will take this kind of pressure, he says, for business schools to shift curriculum and practices to emphasize different values.