Changing Focus in Business School Curricula

Ethics have played an ever-growing role in business school curricula since the 2008 financial crisis, after which many turned critical eye toward the institutions responsible for instilling certain values and philosophies in students who would go on to work on Wall Street. Such critics believe that business schools played an important yet often overlooked role in precipitating the crisis, and have since pushed for ways to improve the curriculum. However, there is still much debate over how much business schools are to blame for the financial crisis when there are so many other contributing factors to consider.

Still, many business schools have begun to place greater emphasis on social responsibility in order to better prepare students for ethical dilemmas they will inevitably encounter in their careers. For example, the Aspen Institute and Yale School of Management's  Giving Voice to Values program, geared towards revamping the way ethics is traditionally taught in business schools, is currently being piloted at over 50 business schools in the United States. The program differentiates itself by focusing on ethical implementation as opposed to analysis. In other words, it goes beyond discussing theoretical ethics to teaching students how to act and what to say in compromising situations, which many deem more relevant. These changes are not limited to business programs in the United States: after 2008, ethics courses were added to the core curricula for all masters programs in the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management in Germany.

While it is too soon to tell how effective programs like Giving Voice to Values really are, the more general changes in many curricula have received mixed responses from students themselves. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, recent Bentley University graduate Matthew T. Tice voiced his dissatisfaction with the focus on social responsibility, observing that the emphasis induces in some students a loathing for the field. His particular experience involved learning about the top money scams in history, such as Enron and Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Tice advocates for a shift back to focusing on the technical and quantitative aspects of business, finding it more practical and relevant, arguing that social responsibility courses seem to be “anti-business.”

A few professors actually responded to the op-ed, pointing out that courses on fraud are necessary for the very purpose of preventing large-scale corporate scams in the future. They emphasize that business is not solely about numbers or profit maximization, but rather the snowball effect of human interactions that can ultimately determine the direction of the economy.

This ongoing conversation on the changes in business school curricula is critical, because such dialogue between students, professors, and administrators makes efficient improvement possible. Since not all students appreciate or understand the need for a focus on social responsibility, it may be valuable to hear their perspectives and use those to construct a curriculum that preserves students’ passion for business.

It is clear that the financial crisis has sparked important debate surrounding the importance of teaching social values to students in finance, and many affirm that it is no longer viable to rely on the idea of a market with self-correcting mechanisms. Instead, it is necessary to consciously prevent financial crises before they happen, hence the effort to increase students’ awareness of social values and responsibility.