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New MBAs vow accountability

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

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Business schools have ramped up ethics courses, in part in response to scandals such as the Enron debacle. These courses are a start, but they often stick to basic case studies, says Lawrence Belcher, a finance professor at the Stetson University School of Business Administration in DeLand, Fla. "Now, there's been a wake-up call for a lot of business schools to say, ‘We really need to have these discussions in a broader context ... [to consider] problems when managers and shareholders have different goals.' "

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The MBA oath reminds people that despite the high-profile ethical lapses of late, "there are tons of financial advisers [and] analysts who go to work every day and perform necessary services that do create value," Professor Belcher says.

While the Harvard group's effort has perhaps created a tipping point, this isn't the first time business students have embraced an ethical pledge. A short oath created in 2004 became a formal part of applications and graduation ceremonies two years later at the Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.

"It's been a phenomenal instrument to create a dialogue among faculty and students," says Thunderbird President Ángel Cabrera. He tells of students challenging a professor who commented that the cost of doing business in India sometimes included paying bribes. And he's heard from graduates who have carried into the workplace a willingness to take a stand against corruption. "It's forcing all of us to review what we do and to be consistent with it," he says.

That's the attitude that Harvard organizers want to spread. "Anybody can sign the oath, but it is about the thousands of decisions you're going to make in business," Mr. Carlock says. "Some of these decisions are unbelievably hard.... Hopefully people that have signed the oath will say, ‘OK, I took a stand ... and I'm going to make the right decision.' "

Carlock is heading to California soon for a job at a biotech company - an offer he received months before the oath took shape, he likes to point out to cynics who say it was a ploy to polish résumés.

Meanwhile, a group of business students and alumni are considering ways that the oath can have a greater effect - maybe by pairing people up as "accountability partners." In a nod to those who say the oath has no teeth, "we actually call them the Teeth Group," Carlock says with a laugh.

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