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Harvard MBAs Debut Oath for the Most Dishonest Profession

May 30, 2009

On Friday, the New York Times profiled a group of Harvard Business School students who have taken an "MBA oath" to act responsibly and "serve the greater good." The ethical pledge of "responsible value creation" can't come too soon for America's future business leaders. After all, a February 2009 Marist poll found that in the wake of the nation's financial meltdown, a majority of Americans give corporate leaders a D or F for their honesty and ethical conduct. And as it turns out, a 2006 Duke University study revealed more MBA students cheat than those pursuing other professions.
That study of 5,300 students at 54 institutions by the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke found that 56% of MBA seekers acknowledged cheating, more than those in fields such as education (48%), social sciences (39%) or even law (45%). Contrary to Republican mythology, apparently it is the country's CEOs and managers and not its lawyers Americans should trust least:

"Business schools have a significant problem that should be addressed," said Donald McCabe, the study's lead author and a professor at Rutgers University.
Cheating is a problem at all schools, "even if deans at leading schools don't want to concede it," he said.

Those results have been sadly consistent over time. In 1997, McCabe similarly found that undergraduate business students (84%) topped their counterparts in engineering (72%) and other majors (66%) in admitting to having cheated at least once. That echoes a 1964 study by a Columbia University researcher who found that "66 percent of business students surveyed at 99 campuses said they cheated at least once."
To their credit, American business schools are beginning to acknowledge they have an image if not an ethics problem on their hands. In the wake of the Enron scandal and the implosion of Wall Street, B-schools are ramping up the number of ethics classes they offer. Three years ago, Columbia Business School began requiring that its students pledge to uphold an honor code. Diana C. Robertson, a professor of business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, described the evolving landscape:

"It's been a dramatic change. This generation was raised learning about the environment and raised with the idea of a social conscience. That does not apply to every student. But this year's financial crisis and the downturn have brought about a greater emphasis on social ethics and responsibility."

For their part, 160 of Harvard's 800 prospective MBA's have taken the new voluntary oath. That is all to the good, as the Duke study concluded "perceived peer behavior has the largest effect" on the erstwhile MBA's penchant for cheating. Among its principles, the oath (conveniently offered in both 250 and 500 word versions) proclaims:

"I will manage my enterprise in good faith, guarding against decisions and behavior that advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the societies it serves."

That the nation's business schools may be finally coming to grips with their ethical failings is a promising if long overdue development. Sadly, as the wreckage of the American economy at the hands of earlier generations of MBAs shows, it's already too late for this generation.
(Disclaimer: As I've noted before, some of my best friends have MBAs, and only a few of them are cheating, lying scoundrels.)

2 comments on “Harvard MBAs Debut Oath for the Most Dishonest Profession”

  1. The idea that making people take ethics classes will make them more ethical is silly. I can take all the childbirth classes I want, but it won't make me a mom. (Especially given my gender.)
    I suppose I could be persuaded otherwise by empirical evidence, but I'm not aware of any.
    It will be interesting to see whether and how they measure the effectiveness of "the oath," and whether it has any. Several of my good friends with MBAs have characterized the curriculum as intentionally designed primarily to try to beat the ethics out of the student to make them more effective businesspeople, so it may be that some more fundamental kind of change is required.

  2. As a two-time graduate of Rutgers University, I object to its depiction as a respectable institution of research and higher learning! 🙂


Jon Perr
Jon Perr is a technology marketing consultant and product strategist who writes about American politics and public policy.

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