Professor Richard L. Schmalensee ist Dekan der MIT Sloan School of Management
Richard Schmalensee: Business leaders must be sensitive to ethical issues

I believe that any post-mortem on the failings of corporate America must include not only the greed and excesses of a few high-profile executives, but the overall ways in which we train corporate managers.

At the MIT Sloan School of Management, such rethinking was well underway long before this year’s MBA class arrived in Cambridge. Now that they’re here, students are participating in an especially timely and intense analysis of business ethics and practices. And for the first time, the proposed Hippocratic oath for MBAs was discussed seriously during this year’s orientation.

Students discussed the oath in the broader context of professional standards and career goals, and of the proper balance between stakeholder interests. What would an oath add in this context? Would it mean anything? Could it be enforced in any sense? Could it help prevent the kinds of scandals and indiscretions seen recently?

While no definitive answers were either expected or offered, some interesting conclusions nonetheless came out. Some die-hards against an oath feared it might constrain and stifle creativity. Others were more sympathetic to the oath idea, as long as it laid out a clear set of principles by which to live and work – and which would translate into real action when unethical behavior is witnessed. Some thought the proposed oath was too long, broad and ambitious; others thought it omitted important principles and values.

At MIT Sloan, our mission has always been to give people the tools they need to exercise good judgment and creativity in a way that is socially valuable. We want to inspire people to come up with new products, new processes, new industries, better functioning organizations and better ways of thinking that yield lasting value not just for themselves and their companies, but for society. Long before Enron, MIT Sloan was acting to keep its programs relevant to today’s challenges. Even as all the corporate scandals hit, MIT Sloan was in the midst of a top-to-bottom overhaul of its curriculum.

This fall, students have seen results far beyond just adding a few new ethics courses. At MIT Sloan, our goal is nothing less than to reinvent management education.

Other management schools are also responding to changing times, of course. But because of its ties to MIT, Sloan is uniquely positioned to link academic research to real-world management challenges and practices. At MIT, students need only take a short walk to learn directly from people in the laboratories where the innovations of the next 20 years are being developed. And the scientists and engineers in those labs flock to MIT Sloan because they know they need more than technical savvy and a great invention to be successful.

How MIT Sloan’s revamped curriculum and programs succeed matters far beyond Cambridge, however. If schools of business and management want applicants who aren’t future Ken Lays, they must prove that they too have learned – and applied - the lessons of management failure. We must give people the tools they need to inspire them to be creative, not in beating the accounting rules, but creating lasting value.

So instead of stale case studies, our first-year MBAs this fall will be working with a Fortune 500 company that has agreed to share with MIT Sloan a real problem it now faces, a problem that cuts across functional silos of marketing, finance, corporate strategy, and organizational development. Student teams will propose solutions to the company – which still lacks one of its own – and the company will come in to judge their proposals.

That’s just one way that MIT Sloan is trying to break traditional management classroom pedagogy. The standard semester is now broken into two six-week segments, separated by a new, one-week MIT Sloan Innovation Period during which students can choose from a range of intensive, experiential learning opportunities. Students will be able, for example, to learn from dozens of faculty members about their current research work. By integrating such research into their learning, MIT Sloan MBAs will be much closer to the exciting forefront of what will make business and society work in the decades to come.

The discussion of an MBA oath will continue at MIT Sloan and elsewhere. It is my belief that for an oath to have a real impact, it needs to state clearly a set of principles and options that make sense to students as well as business leaders and that most people of conscience, after due consideration, would endorse. As we participate in this discussion, we are also working to develop tomorrow’s principled leaders. They will have to be entrepreneurial, and have a global perspective. Whether leading a global multinational or building a start-up, they must master the interactions among innovation, organizations, markets, and society that drive our dynamic world. They must be sensitive to ethical issues and able to think clearly about them. At MIT Sloan, the bold changes we have made are aimed at helping develop such leaders.

So if you’re just interested in making money, MIT Sloan is not the place for you. But if you’re seeking to learn creative ways to create and manage complex organizations in a way that aids society and builds wealth, that is what we offer. And that is what both future corporate managers and the world of business need.

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