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From Artificial Intelligence To #MeToo, B-Schools Are Placing Ethical Dilemmas On The Syllabus

Controversial topics such as gun control and same-sex marriage have led to a rise in ethical MBA courses

Wed Apr 18 2018

In the wake of sexual harassment scandals that sparked the #MeToo movement and Oxfam exposés, business schools are stepping up their efforts to combat wrongdoing by placing more emphasis on ethics in the curriculum and creating new courses.

In October last year, the UK’s Warwick Business School commissioned a drama company to create a play on sexual harassment at Uber, based on a Susan J Fowler’s experience at the ride-hailing app firm. The idea is that students experience the ethical dilemmas of senior decision makers through the eyes of the protagonists.

Warwick is among a wide range of schools taking a harder look at ethics in the MBA syllabus. “Ethics has been at the forefront of the topic of conversation of late,” says Juliane Iannarelli, diversity and inclusion advocate at b-school accreditation body AACSB International. “Every high-profile scandal brings the subject into focus for business schools, who are, increasingly, exploring the roles of individuals and companies in combatting wrongdoing.”

Driving the trend are recent revelations such as senior staff at the Oxfam charity making liberal use of prostitutes in the wake of the Haiti earthquake, and a younger generation of students prioritizing positive societal and environmental impact over financial rewards in their careers.

At Cambridge Judge Business School in the UK, senior lecturer Michael Kitson teaches a course that explores how the rise of technology such as artificial intelligence, and climate change, are impacting social inequality. “Students want to know about these big global trends that are causing so much uncertainty,” he says.

While students are demanding an ethical curriculum, business schools are demanding MBA candidates who will become ethical leaders. NYU’s Stern School of Business in New York last year changed its admissions process to find candidates with empathy so that they can contribute to peer-learning.

“We are hoping it also helps us in terms of making sure they fit into our culture,” says Isser Gallogly, associate dean of MBA admissions at NYU Stern.

Another contributor to the increased ethical focus of business schools is the trend of corporate leaders speaking out on moral problems. Several large retailers, such as Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods, spoke out on gun control recently after a gunman killed 17 people in a Florida high school, leading to the #NRABoycott movement.

At Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in North Carolina, a new course for this year is dealing with corporate activism directly: how future CEOs can approach speaking out on issues not directly related to their business, such as immigration same-sex marriage.

The challenge for schools is to address such sensitive and controversial topics in a classroom full of diverse and often competing opinions. Several UK universities including Cardiff have come under fire for failing to uphold free speech in recent months.

“There is lots of sensitivity, such as around the issue of the EU, the role of the euro and now increasingly the impact of Brexit,” says Cambridge’s Michael.

“We do stress that we are part of a university, so we allow diverse views and we are tolerant and respect that. It’s important for everybody to express their views but in a disciplined and fair manner.”