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Catholic Colleges & Universities

Ethics education grows in importance for MBA candidates


A master’s of business administration -- an MBA -- degree means money and lots of it. BusinessWeek magazine reports that even in today’s slumping economy, graduates of the nation’s top 30 MBA programs can expect a first-year post-graduate salary of nearly $130,000.

But is an MBA bad for the soul?

A spring 2000 Aspen Institute survey of 512 MBA candidates revealed that more than 80 percent of those finishing the first year of a program placed “maximizing shareholder value” as the top responsibility of a corporation; significantly, the survey showed that the further along a student is in their MBA quest, the more likely he or she is to put a premium on shareholder value. Other considerations -- service to the community, treatment of employees, environmental policies of the company -- finished far behind.

“When asked about the primary responsibilities of the company, students give greatest attention to shareholder return -- a reflection of the powerful place shareholders occupy in the first-year curriculum,” Aspen reported.

Aspen would get a very different answer if it asked that question today, says Colleen Monahan Arons, a second-year student at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. The corporate scandals of 2001-2002 -- Enron, Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing -- have led today’s MBA candidates to “connect the dots” and put a “strong and solid business model” ahead of short-term profitability. Though recognizing the importance of profitability, today’s MBA candidates have a far greater appreciation that the drive to boost stock price can “totally distort what you think about a business,” says Monahan Arons.

As president of the 125-member Georgetown chapter of Net Impact -- a “network of emerging business leaders committed to using the power of business to create a better world” -- the 27-year-old New Hampshire native has to think a lot about corporate ethics. As a key player in the organization’s 12-member conference planning committee -- their 10th annual event will be held in Washington Oct. 25-27 -- she has to put that thought into action. More than 600 current MBA candidates and several hundred Net Impact “alumni” will attend the conference. Among the topics to be discussed: corporate social responsibility, corporate codes of conduct, community development and “green investing.”

Georgetown, like many other business schools, requires MBA candidates to take a business ethics class in their first year, and students can opt for classes with a moral component in their second year. That’s a good thing, says Monahan Arons, though more could be done. She’d like to see a “buffet of required ethics courses” combined with real-life examples and fewer lectures.

She recalled a class in which students grappled with the problem of pharmaceutical patents. Should a drug company give up its patent rights in poverty-stricken countries where the government could produce a generic product that would save thousands of lives? Or should it protect the patent -- the fruit of its investment and lifeline to profitability -- at all costs?

Because it involved a major industry dealing with a current and controversial topic, the project was “considered important by even the most traditional MBA students,” said Monahan Arons. Students were required to argue -- through memorandum and class discussion -- each side of the issue, whatever their personal opinions and beliefs.

Georgetown is a good environment for such discussions, said George G. Brenkert, a professor at the McDonough School and director of the university’s Business Ethics Institute. While “there’s certainly some truth” to the stereotype of an MBA candidate whose sole focus is personal wealth -- “we have students here who are very much of that type of mindset” -- the school’s religious roots mean students know that ethics education “will be taught with some favor here,” said Brenkert.

It’s exactly that mindset that attracted Monahan Arons to Georgetown in the first place. She received her undergraduate degree in American Studies from Georgetown in 1997, where she was a member of the George F. Baker Scholar Program, the goal of which is to provide “motivated liberal arts majors the opportunity to interact with and learn about careers in business from successful executives.”

Part of the message she received there: “You can and should be involved in more than one sector as a professional.” Plus: “You can give back while you’re building a career -- you don’t have to work, work, work and earn your billion and then start giving back.”

Monahan Arons has already begun giving back. She and several other Georgetown MBA candidates are acting as pro-bono consultants to the Washington archdiocese’s Kennedy Institute, which seeks to improve education and training opportunities for the disabled.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent.

National Catholic Reporter, October 25, 2002