Thomas F. Cooley, Dean New York University Stern School of Business Thomas F. Cooley: A Hippocratic Oath Will Not Affect Change

This action will serve as another meaningless exercise, another rote requirement, where the underlying purpose will be lost, the deam of New York University Stern School of Business says.
  • By Thomas F. Cooley

The mere act of requiring a pledge — a swearing under a Hippocratic Oath — will not affect change and produce more ethically responsible graduates from business schools around the world. Rather, this action will serve as another meaningless exercise, another rote requirement, where the underlying purpose will be lost.

In the 1950’s, business education was regarded as somewhat suspect, and there was much doubt about whether it belonged in serious universities. Commissions of respected scholars, convened to study this issue by the Ford Foundation and others, concluded that there were many serious intellectually challenging issues that business education could address. But they also warned that business schools would always risk being held hostage by the more narrowly defined interests of business. Our job as business scholars is to manage that risk. Our job is to study business, to understand markets and to participate in them where appropriate, but also to stand apart so as to keep a clear-eyed view, and when necessary, to stand in judgment. Business schools are a public trust. We have a fiduciary duty to the truth, not to the bottom line. We are entrusted by society with the culture of a profession, and we have a responsibility to reinvigorate it through the education of each new generation. Therefore our goal must be to provide meaningful and serious intellectual challenges that prepare students to deal with our complex world.

At New York University Stern School of Business, one of the top business schools in the U.S., we don’t believe that you can mandate or, for that matter, teach ethics in the traditional sense. Rather, our philosophy, and our responsibility as a management education institution, is to instill a sense of professional responsibility into our MBA students who, upon graduation, will be required to make difficult business decisions and effectively lead and manage people on a daily basis. Professional responsibility is not the latest fad, but rather an important value we have been practicing at the Stern School since the school opened more than 100 years ago.

To start, the Stern School has had a required for-credit course in Professional Responsibility for more than 30 years and is one of the very few business schools that has had a required course of this sort in its core for so many years. This course is part of our Markets, Ethics and Law Program, and all MBA students, as well as students in our undergraduate college, must take it to graduate. Faculty across multiple disciplines not only teach the course but also write the textbook, “Professional Responsibility.” The 10th edition, just released for this fall, includes the most up-to-date case studies and issues, ranging from the impact of the Sarbanes Oxley Act to the aggressive marketing tactics practiced by the pharmaceutical industry. Professors not only address high-profile cases such as WorldCom and Enron, but also others where the issues are quite “gray” and require significant analysis with regards to conducting business in a professionally responsible manner.

At the Stern School, we don’t believe that learning begins and ends in the classroom. The theoretical must be applied to real, practical situations. And our students not only practice professional responsibility, but also social responsibility by giving back to the community. This year, 100 Stern MBAs will participate in our Stern Consulting Corps program in which they will provide pro-bono management and consulting services to small minority owned businesses and not-for-profit groups serving the New York City community.

As an educational institution, we also believe that we have a responsibility to debate and shape, in partnership with the business community, the thinking that will further inform corporate governance reforms and help restore confidence in the corporation. Our Center for Law and Business, a joint venture of the Stern School and NYU Law School, facilitates cooperation and coordination between law and business faculty with respect to teaching, research and the formation of public policy. This past May, in partnership with the New York Stock Exchange, the Center hosted its inaugural Directors’ Institute, designed specifically for corporate directors, that convened thought-leaders from business, government and academia to debate and discuss the latest governance and ethical issues facing businesses.

As educators, we have a tremendous responsibility in preparing our students to go out into the world of business not only to be successful in their careers, but also to be professionally responsible. We can’t ensure this result just by requiring our students to take an oath. It’s just not that simple.

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