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Business Schools Increasingly Require Students to Study Ethics

Some graduate schools have offered courses in business ethics for decades.

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When Lee Igel's students ask him why New York University doesn't require them to take business ethics courses, the associate professor reminds them of the codes of values that every scandalized organization handed out to new hires and plastered to every available surface.

"Did it make a difference? Of course not," Igel tells his management and organizational behavior classes at NYU's School of Continuing and Professional Studies. "[Students] did not need to learn the difference between right and wrong ... [but] how to apply the difference between right and wrong to their work."

Even if Igel manages to convince his students that business ethics courses are unnecessary, their classmates in the Stern School of Business are likely to be exposed to a very different perspective. Stern, which claims to have been one of the first business schools to require an ethics course more than 30 years ago, was ranked eighth on the Aspen Institute's 2009-2010 Global 100 List of business schools that prepare M.B.A.s for "social, ethical, and environmental stewardship."

Noah Schmutter, a part-time M.B.A. student at Stern, recently completed the school's required 1.5 credit class, Professional Responsibility, which taught him about insider trading and discrimination on the basis of religion, race, gender, and disabilities. "It's mostly common sense," he says of the course, "but it's still worthwhile."

According to Schmutter, the course is required for all M.B.A. students, and in his program, students must complete the entire core curriculum—25.5 credits—before taking the course, so it will be "relatively fresh in our minds once we go back to work."

Schmutter's professor, who is general counsel for a financial services company, differentiated between ethics within and outside the workplace. "One of our readings compared the two situations to a poker game," Schmutter says. "Bluffing and deception are not considered immoral in a poker game, but they are in the real world. The business world is much like a poker game."

The University of Chicago's Booth School of Business is one of the few business schools that doesn't seem to have a business ethics class in its course catalog. In a chat on the school's website in April 2011, Ellie McDonald, associate director of admissions and marketing for Booth's evening and weekend M.B.A. programs, told a prospective student, "Chicago Booth does not have any classes specifically targeted to ethics, however, each professor incorporates that topic in their lectures."

[See our Best Business Schools rankings.]

Business students at other graduate schools across the nation—particularly in the wake of scandals surrounding Enron, Bernard Madoff, and others—can increasingly expect to take at least one ethics course. They are also likely to hear their school bicker with the competition about who is ahead of the social responsibility curve. Many of the schools listed in the Aspen Institute survey, as well as several professors and administrators who responded to a U.S.News & World Report query, cited the longevity of their ethics programs.

The University of Virginia says it houses "one of the first top-ranked business schools to establish a required, standalone first year course in ethics," and the University of Denver claims to have "one of the first interdisciplinary M.B.A. programs with a core theme of ethics and corporate responsibility." San Francisco State University flaunts a 25-year-old ethics requirement, while Allison Adams, media relations director of the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill's Kenan-Flagler Business School, says the school's ethics requirement has been on the books for nearly five decades. The University of California­—Berkeley goes so far as to say it has focused on preparing responsible business leaders since 1898.

David Frasier, assistant dean at the University at Buffalo—SUNY's School of Management, says he and fellow colleagues at his institution, which requires a course in business ethics and government, have noticed more professors integrating ethics into syllabi. "Many, if not most, textbooks are now giving significant coverage to the topic in both chapter material and cases and questions at the end of each chapter," he says.