Academia grapples with real-life problems in business behavior

Management 718 is no snoozer of a class. Even if you wanted to sleep through this course on business ethics at Suffolk University here, you couldn't. There's too much discussion - and even yelling - going on.

No sooner has David Breyer posed to his students that companies set up some way to keep track of corporate social behavior than a loud objection from the back of the lecture hall cuts Professor Breyer short:

''The first thing that's going to happen is, a chief executive officer is going to want to know how this affects the bottom line,'' the student argues. If setting up a system to deal with ethical practices is costly, and ''if (a company) is not breaking the law,'' nothing is going to be done, he states. The air fills with a good 10 minutes of back-and-forthing between tweed-coated Breyer and these part-time students, here to earn master's degrees in business administration. All have worked in the professional world for at least five years, and know whereof they speak.

But the fourth floor of Sawyer Hall is not the only university setting where ethics is a hot issue.

''There's no question there's a tremendous interest in academia in the subject of business ethics,'' affirms Kirk Hanson, a professor of business administration at Stanford University. Since the mid-'70s, 322 new business ethics courses have come into being, a 1980 survey by the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College reports. The survey also shows that 48 more colleges and universities are planning to establish a class like this, and 144 schools would like to.

Professor Hanson names two reasons behind the interest. First, philosophers need jobs. ''They are looking for an applied field to work in, and that's where the students are - in business,'' Hanson says. But, he adds, ''the other reason is business people. . . . There's a growing demand among corporations for (seminars, etc.) on the role of ethics and values, and standards of conduct.''

What is business ethics?

''It always has meant, and always will mean, any (business action) that makes an impact on human lives,'' defines Kenneth Goodpaster, an assistant professor at the Harvard Business School.

That's a broad definition, but it says something about the nature of today's ethics courses. While many business schools have been teaching social-policy courses, these often dwell on corporate concerns outside the company - like the community. Business ethics deals with these outside concerns and inside ones - like employee rights and quality of work life.

In the best classes, you won't find a professor preaching right and wrong. ''We're not ladling out answers,'' emphasizes John Matthews, who teaches ethics to executives in Harvard's advanced management program. ''We're trying to make people think - about the full, often-agonizing implications of a complex issue.'' Professor Matthews's course has become so popular with the executives that two years ago they voted to make it required for the program.

What professors do teach is theory, case studies, and the kind of company structures that encourage ethical behavior. Theory helps students recognize ethical dilemmas and gives them a way to think them through. Case studies present the issues - pollution, discrimination, product safety, etc. - and promote discussion on how the companies being studied could have handled a problem better. A look at structure shows how a company might set up a system to catch or prevent ethical mistakes.

Students have mixed views on the practicality of this instruction.

''I can't see this course enhancing my skills as a manager or making me a better human being,'' says Romano Mieciche, a Suffolk student who has been in business for 16 years. ''Perhaps it would be better for students at a very early level in business.'' ''The professor has no real business experience,'' a fellow student says with a shrug.

Vincent Bisceglia, a product manager, says the course gives him confidence. ''It makes you solidify what you believe.'' And, he adds, ''it's good to hear other people's approach to solutions.'' Some students say pressure at their companies makes it difficult to stand for morality. But Mr. Bisceglia says his chief executive promotes ethics, and so ''I wouldn't be chastised (for acting ethically).''

During a mid-morning break, Patricia Havinon calls the class ''absolutely worthwhile. These are real world issues. . . . They provoke you to question established ways of doing things.''

Faculty members admit that academia has a long way to go. ''We need to talk more with corporate people'' and do more field research, says Dr. W. Michael Hoffman, director of the Center for Business Ethics in Waltham, Mass. Teachers could also use a thorough and detailed case-study textbook. Harvard is working on one which will come out next fall. Those who teach these courses need both business and philosophy backgrounds. And courses must become more practical, dealing with small-company problems, and not just the Ford Pintos of the world.

Despite the strides he predicts in these areas, Dr. Hoffman believes ethics courses have already done a lot of good. ''I think the field has sensitized corporations to ethics,'' he says. And, he explains, the slew of ethics courses is training a whole new generation of students to think differently about business decisions.

Next: How some corporations deal with ethics.

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