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The Alsop Perspective: Putting Substance Behind the MBA Oath

By Ron Alsop

Many people believe the concept of an MBA oath grew out of the economic and financial crisis of 2008. Not so. I first wrote about an MBA oath nine years ago.

In my column back then for The Wall Street Journal, I interviewed Angel Cabrera, then dean of IE Business School in Madrid, who had drafted a proposed student oath promising commitment to environmental and social responsibility. “I believe that swearing to behave in an ethical fashion in front of your family and peers will make you come away feeling, ‘Boy, do I have a responsibility!’ ” Cabrera told me.

Some critics scoffed at the notion of an oath for managers modeled after the Hippocratic Oath for doctors, calling it toothless and unnecessary. Deans of a few major business schools didn’t believe MBA students would—or even should—recite such an oath. But Cabrera persevered. In 2004, he assumed the presidency at the Thunderbird School of Global Management, where he, along with students and faculty, integrated an Oath of Honor into the MBA program. It became part of the admission application, the curriculum, and the commencement ceremony.

Cabrera continued to promote the oath, but it took one of the worst financial crises, plus a big name like Harvard, to get the world’s attention. After some Harvard students wrote an MBA Oath in 2009, the media took notice, and MBAs at other schools jumped on the bandwagon.

The flurry of publicity has subsided, but the backers of a professional oath for business school graduates remain committed to spreading the word. “We’re still not where we want to be,” Cabrera says. “We’d like to get both more schools and companies to adopt the oath.” Later this year, he’ll get the chance to try to incorporate the oath at George Mason University in Virginia, when he becomes its president.

Oath Project Connects Multiple Efforts

There are multiple oaths out there now, all of which call for ethical conduct and a sense of social responsibility. Most are connected through an umbrella organization called the Oath Project. Housed at Thunderbird, the Oath Project recently launched a new website that explains its mission and lets people sign its oath, which is virtually identical to the one created by the Harvard students.

Thunderbird’s Oath of Honor is more concise than the others, while the language is a bit different in the Global Business Oath, written by the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders group. Meanwhile, students and alumni at the Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario not only pledge to act with integrity, but they also receive a ring symbolizing their commitment.

“Now that there’s a broken social contract, I envision the oath spreading beyond MBA programs,” says Debra Wheat, executive director of the Oath Project. “We’re getting a lot of inquiries from schools, including undergraduate business programs without MBAs.”

But will the oath lose momentum as memories of Bernie Madoff’s crimes and the demise of Lehman Brothers fade? That’s possible, just as ethics courses in business schools seem to go in and out of fashion based on the latest corporate scandal quotient. Indeed, the number of Harvard MBA graduates supporting the oath has declined since 2009, when more than half the class signed it.

A Sustainable Effort?

The ideal solution would be to institutionalize the oath, as Thunderbird did. But given the divided opinions about the value and impact of a management oath, most business schools likely will find it hard to gain approval from their diverse constituents to institutionalize it. Harvard, for instance, doesn’t officially sponsor the oath, even though it has the backing of the current dean, Nitin Nohria. A Harvard case study about the MBA Oath was completed recently, which could help give it more staying power and influence.

Some skeptics still see a management oath as a cosmetic response to the criticism of MBA programs in the wake of the financial crisis. What an oath needs is substance to back it up, including courses and extracurricular programs on ethics and corporate responsibility.

That’s why Bentley University, national headquarters for the Graduation Pledge Program, asks only participants in its Civic Leadership Program to take its version of the Graduation Pledge of Social and Environmental Responsibility. (Created in 1987 at Humboldt State University in California, the pledge actually predates all of the MBA oaths and is aimed at all college students, not just business school graduates.)

“We link the pledge very closely to our service learning program,” says Anthony Buono, professor and coordinator of the Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility. “We focus on a small and committed group of students rather than get as many as possible to take the pledge. For our students, the pledge is a culmination and celebration of their civic leadership development and a statement that they’re going to continue that commitment.” As for an MBA oath, Buono says it’s still under discussion at Bentley. “I don’t know how impactful simply taking a pledge or oath is,” he adds, “but anything that raises the visibility of these issues with students is a good thing.”

The Power of the Peer Group

I believe an MBA or professional business oath is a fine idea, just as I did when I first wrote about it nearly a decade ago. Will it significantly curb unethical behavior in the business world? Not likely. But it will at least make oath takers think twice when they face an ethical conundrum. Social psychology research indicates that signing or reciting an oath can strengthen an individual’s commitment. What’s more, taking an oath with a group of peers can foster a sense of common purpose and accountability to one another, as well as to society.

“Taking the oath with your fellow students reinforces that you’re not isolated in making these difficult ethical decisions,” say Max Anderson, the Harvard student who initiated the MBA Oath project. Now a general manager at an investment fund, he says the oath is a “constant reminder that it’s not about enriching ourselves, but about doing as good a job as I can for the pension funds and institutions I’m working for.”

Still, some people believe a business school oath needs a policing mechanism, such as a committee empowered to revoke an MBA degree if a graduate doesn’t adhere to his promises. But it’s hard to imagine MBA students and alumni going along with a system that puts their degrees at risk and subjects them to public censure. Furthermore, losing an MBA degree wouldn’t necessarily stop someone from getting a business job or starting a company.

No doubt, debate over the merits of a management oath will continue in the media and blogosphere. Even if interest in an oath wanes until the next big scandals surface, Cabrera and the Harvard students have succeeded in stirring lively public discussion about whether an oath for managers has any real value and how much responsibility business schools bear for their graduates’ actions. That kind of conversation is a good thing, no matter where you stand on the issues.

Ron Alsop is a former Wall Street Journal columnist and editor and the author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace and The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Top Business Schools. The Alsop Perspective runs quarterly in Graduate Management News.

 

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