Harvard's B-school says times call for required ethics class
Boston — The Harvard Business School will require its students this fall to take a course in business ethics. Veritas, or ``truth,'' has long been the proud inscription on the Harvard shield, and ethics instruction is not new to the school. But officials, mulling over education and business trends, recently decided the time was right to require a course.
``Through our decisions and through our actions we signal our values,'' said Thomas Piper, senior associate dean for education at the business school in a speech to faculty early last year. ``If we decline to talk about ethics, responsibility, and leadership, we implicitly convey that these issues are not a priority.''
The move comes amid a growing concern in society that ethical standards in business have declined. A number of schools, including Stanford, Columbia, Wharton, and Dartmouth, have responded with efforts to integrate ethics instruction into their curriculums.
Harvard's three-week course will involve seven sessions of about an hour and 20 minutes each. Some of the topics that will be tackled include discovering purposes and responsibilities of corporations; learning whether market and regulatory forces are sufficient; and identifying ethical pressures on individuals and organizations.
Ethics are complex, but Harvard's required course is intentionally brief ``so it doesn't become a substitute for discussions elsewhere,'' says William Hokanson, a spokesman for the business school. ``We don't want to provide an excuse for a teacher not to deal with ethics issues already integrated into their courses.'' Harvard offers a popular, full course in business ethics as an elective. Ethics issues are also integrated into the case studies in most courses.
In his annual report for 1986-87, Harvard University president Derek Bok said that since World War II, professors have ``concentrated more and more on conveying knowledge and imparting skills, leaving students to fashion their own beliefs and commitments amid the multiple distractions of campus life.''
Educators say that Harvard's move to mandate ethics teaching will likely cause other business schools to reevaluate their own ethics education.
``They really are the compass for business education in this country,'' says W.Michael Hoffman, director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. ``A lot of schools with no required program in business ethics will now consider whether they should following Harvard's lead.''
Other factors may have impinged on the decision to expand ethics instruction at Harvard.
Early last year, John Shad, former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, gave the Harvard Business School $23 million to support ethics research and enhance ethical instruction in the curriculum. Also last year, the American Express Company donated $1.5 million to Harvard University to develop an ethics curriculum.
Such developments, however, have come in a relative ethics vacuum, with little full-fledged ethics course work offered by business schools.
A recent survey by the American Association of Collegiate Schools of Business Schools, a major accrediting association, reported a dearth of ethics instruction. According to the survey, nearly 90 percent of business schools taught ethics in some fashion, but only 20 percent said they had a separate, nonrequired course. Only 6 to 7 percent had required ethics courses.
With ethics highlighted in the wake of the Wall Street insider-trading scandal, and the investigation of Pentagon contractors and consultants, business, too, appears to be seeking people whose ethical values are mature and well defined.
``Corporate ethics is a strategic key to survival and profitability in this era of fierce competitiveness in a global economy,'' says a report by the Business Roundtable, a leading business think tank based in New York. The February report was entitled ``Corporate ethics: a prime business asset.''
Even with a bubbling up of support for ethics instruction in business schools, many argue that by the time a student reaches business school, ethical values are already set.
``If one thinks of it as professional character building, then the schools can enhance and amplify the moral capacities of ordinary people,'' says Gary Edwards, director of the Washington-based Ethics Resource Center. ``You want to draw on those moral capacities already in place, and extend their capacity, their range.''
Bentley College's Prof. Hoffman agrees with Mr. Edwards that business schools can expect to enhance and expand understanding of already existing moral qualities.
``That seems to presuppose that we don't have the freedom to change our character or our lives,'' says Hoffman. ``We not only have the power to change our characters and develop new ethical positions - but we have the responsibility to do so.''