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CSOM stresses ethics for business students

Published: Monday, September 14, 2009

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01

This year, the Carroll School of Management is implementing a new comprehensive ethics course called Portico as a requirement for business students. This fall marks the first ever semester that Portico, whose implementation has been an ongoing project for the past four years, is part of Boston College's undergraduate management curriculum. All incoming freshmen are required to take the three-credit course.

Until now, CSOM has required a one-credit ethics course. Portico, though, offers more department-specific courses, such as marketing and globalization ethics. Richard Keeley, associate dean of CSOM and chair of the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics, said that the concept of the Portico program has been in development for some time. "There was always a sense of wanting to do more but not enough resources," he said. "Now we really have got some momentum."

Dean of CSOMAndrew Boynton said he believes BC's service culture to have had an effect on the new ethics program. "The culture of BC had something to do with this," Boynton said. "I feel strongly that what students get here in management education should be very different in nature than the vast majority of other undergraduate business programs. Portico reflects that."

Richard E. Sorensen, dean of Virginia Polytechnic Institute's Pamplin School of Business and chair of the Committee on Issues in Management Education of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), said that the development of ethics programs such as Portico is growing across the country. Some religious schools have had an ethical focus for years, he said, while some programs are new.

Sorensen said he believes ethics to be one of the critical areas of business education. "Breaches of ethics have been the most serious problem. If a person doesn't have a reputation for ethical leadership, they will fail at what they are doing," he said.

Boynton said that he also believes that ethics education has an important role in business education. "Ethical leadership and decision making has to take a more central role in education and formation of the students," Boynton said.

"Rather than teach students just the techniques of business, we also want to teach them how to think well," he said. "Increasingly more information is available, the world is moving faster, and it's not an easy place to succed. At the heart of it you have to learn how to learn and how to think," Boynton said.

He said Portico isn't just "superficial ethics," but that it's about getting back to the roots of ethical thinking and reasoning. "We can't teach students what to do, but we can give them a background in Kant, Aristotle, in how to ask questions when facing a dilemma," Boynton said.

Boynton said that the main goal of the course is not only to teach students ethics, but to give them a sense of current issues and how business interacts in the world, to step back and see the big picture, before they go on to their respective concentrations. He said he hopes the course will help CSOM freshmen become much more discerning in what they choose to do, and also instill in them an interest in the liberal arts. "We are trying to give them a sense of perspective," he said.

Keeley said that although people will inevitably perceive different events and issues differently, Portico tries to teach students to sift things out, ask the right questions, and have the right analytical framework, to be able to "think systematically about ethics."

"An important part of the course is to really understand how business works," Keeley said. That way, students will have what Keeley refers to as moral courage, and the "know-how to speak up when you know fraud is happening under your very eyes." He said that people like Harry Markopolos, the Madoff whistleblower and BC '97, are examples of that.

Boynton said that he hopes to expand elements of the Portico program over time so that it becomes a thread that runs through all four of a students years in CSOM. "Will it go perfectly, who knows? We are going to have to take three steps forward and one back, but we are going to stay with it and grow it," he said.

The new initiative from CSOM is one of a number of events aimed at promoting ethics at the school. BC recently became a member of Principles and Resources of Management Education (PRME), a voluntary engagement platform for business schools and management-related academic institutions. According to the organization's Web site, any institution that is willing to systematically integrate business ethics into their curriculum is welcome to join the initiative.

"We joined and signed up around last year, when Sandra Waddock, [a professor in the operations, information and strategic marketing department] and global leader on social responsibility and ethical management, brought it to my attention. It seemed like a good idea because the organization's principles reflected who we are and how we behave," Boynton said.

Keeley said he believes the University's new focus on ethics is beneficial, especially in this age. "It doesn't hurt that people are giving the issue more attention - with Madoff, Enron, Tyco - you name it. The business environment today is filled with much pressure, which may be connected to globalization, but it has always been difficult for human beings to do the right thing," he said. "It's hard enough to know the right thing, to do it is even more difficult."

For this reason, Keeley directs programs within the Winston Center to bring in speakers and leaders who demonstrate what it means to "lead in an ethical fashion in contemporary society." Last year, the Winston Center invited Cynthia Cooper, the WorldCom whistleblower who exposed a $3.8 billiion accounting fraud at the company.

"That's the kind of moral realism we want to put in front of students. When we bring in someone like that, it makes a difference to the students," Keeley said.

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