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Viewpoint: Our Business Schools Must Teach Better Ethics

Elissa Magnant, left, and Erica Steckler
Elissa Magnant, left, and Erica Steckler are UMass Lowell Manning School of Business faculty members and co-direct the Richard and Nancy Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.

Boston Business Journal
By Elissa Magnant & Erica Steckler

Many consider the phrase “business ethics” to be an oxymoron, or even a joke. “Business what?” followed by a cynical laugh or a roll of the eyes is a common response. It’s understandable – 21st-century business has come of age through an era punctuated by industrial disasters and corporate scandals. Fast forward from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911 to Union Carbide’s misdeeds in Bhopal, Enron’s decade of fraud, BP’s callous (mis)operations on Deepwater Horizon and Volkswagen’s global emissions cheat and it’s abundantly clear why “business ethics” rings hollow to most.

We routinely lament the decline of ethics — of decency, of integrity, of basic humanism — in business. Although ethics has become a hyper-concern of business schools far and wide, corporate misdeeds and ethical shortcomings continue to headline our media feeds — and continue to harm employees, consumers, communities and our natural environment worldwide. 

We must teach better ethics. We are reminded of this again and again, particularly this time of year, as the next generation of future leaders gathers with family and friends to celebrate commencements at colleges and universities across the country.

The Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, housed in the Manning School of Business at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, unites a historical learning perspective on business ethics with innovative approaches and best practices in the operation of business – of any kind, at any scale and from any role within the organization. Led by Co-Directors Elissa Magnant and Erica Steckler, the Donahue Center supports the advancement and application of techniques and tools for developing the capacity of UMass Lowell students to act knowledgeably and responsibly – ethically – as empowered change agents in their business endeavors, one decision and interaction at a time. 

Students learn to hone and leverage the ethical orientations they have cultivated over their lifetimes with their growing management and leaderships skills to make positive changes in how business is conducted each day. They understand that they have the opportunity and responsibility to make changes in the workforce that will result in net positive results for the world economy and the well-being of society. With their diverse backgrounds, UMass Lowell students have a unique appreciation of the value of local and national heritages that enhances the potential for team effectiveness and solution-seeking initiatives that strengthen and steward social and natural resources globally. 

Our students understand that they are viewed as our best hope for solving the pressing global economic and policy issues we face, even though they did not create these problems. It’s a daunting certainty to bear early in one’s career. Taking action to fix the complex systemic problems created by others isn't just hard, it’s downright heroic. 

Despite the unfair burden our next generation of leadership bears, we are buoyed by a common goal. We all want our time on this Earth to mean something, to amount to something, to make some kind of positive difference. At our core, we all share a timeless ethical responsibility: What kind of world will we collectively leave to our future generations?

It is the prospect for a much better tomorrow that motivates today’s students toward positive ethical action. This was exactly the hope of Nancy Donahue, benefactor of the Donahue Center at UMass Lowell. It is not a narrow focus on the failures of the past that generates best-in-class change, but an educated understanding of what has not worked historically, paired with a hungry awareness of new opportunities to innovate for the betterment of humanity, that can best guide our decision-making going forward. We teach undergraduates to embrace collaborative – and yes, idealistic – goals, and to set the bar high to attain as much positive and generative momentum as possible. Business can, and inevitably will, be the answer to the multifaceted challenges facing us today. Ethical businesses will be at the heart of these solutions.

Elissa Magnant and Erica Steckler are UMass Lowell Manning School of Business faculty members and co-direct the Richard and Nancy Donahue Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility.