A Morality Tale on Business Ethics Education

I once was a faculty affiliate of a center for business ethics and its interim co-director for a year.  The center was funded by a large gift from executives of a seventy-year old, publicly-traded, family-owned and run company.  Each of the four generations of family members had added to its success. 

An attempted hostile takeover had driven the company into the arms of a prominent private equity firm, where this supposed white knight had yanked it from under the family’s feet.  Bitter at actions they considered duplicitous and immoral, the executives decided that business schools needed to focus more on educating young students on business ethics.  Thus, they funded a center.

The center sponsored case writing and seed research on business ethics and brought in executives from industry as guest speakers.  It led the school to offer its first ever course on business ethics.

The center also offered an annual award to an individual or company that had been exemplary in advocating for business ethics.  One year, a very worthy recipient emerged.  At the time, business schools were struggling to promote ethics because faculty were new to the topic and felt unsure of how to teach it.  So the firm held weeklong sessions multiple times a year to educate business faculty in teaching ethics and financed the attendance of two academics per school per year.  It would be hard to find a greater contributor to ethics teaching in business schools.

That company was Arthur Anderson.  Two years later, complicit as its auditor in Enron’s falsifications, it was out of business.                                      

Dr. Thomas Begley is dean of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.