Occupy Wall Street: a wake-up call for business schools

May 17, 2012 | By | 2 Comments

By Paul Shrivastava. French Version published in La Presse, Montreal “Coup de semonce”, October, 29, 2011

Some have called it business bashing, others hope it fuels increased corporate accountancy. Regardless of labels, the Occupy Wall Street movement can’t be ignored. It’s gone far beyond Manhattan and mushroomed to 185 cities in 82 countries.

In Montreal’s downtown Victoria Square, hundreds of protesters have pitched tents next to icons of international finance and “Québec Inc.” Occupy Wall Street and its offshoots challenge corporate legitimacy and question the responsibility of financial players in the world’s current economic crisis.

Protests are spreading because people are furious. They see first-hand how the middle class is shrinking. Extreme income disparities are growing across the United States and other Western countries. Corporate tycoons, who earn up to USD 16, 000 per hour, are blamed for keeping minimum wages way below USD 16 per hour.

Job cuts and outsourcing to bolster corporate revenues, protestors argue, has created double-digit unemployment in first-world nations. They allege politicians are corrupt because they are financed by large corporations. They see multinational managers as socially irresponsible, unethical and untrustworthy.

These protests are hopefully raising serious questions at business schools. Indeed, the Occupy Wall Street movement questions core principles that govern modern corporations — principles ostensibly taught by institutions of higher learning.

Typical MBA programs skim over business ethics, even though they are the training ground of corporate leaders. Consider the Harvard Business School, which is consistently ranked among the world’s best and whose curriculum serves as a model for institutions around the globe. Yet in more than 2, 000 hours of study and 20 courses, first- and-second-year Harvard business students must take only one course in which ethics is a dominant concern. A single ethics class is grossly insufficient.

At present, most business schools teach corporate leaders the art of making money and fail to examine fair corporate governance. Is it any surprise that corporate managers, educated without an ethical viewpoint, don’t have the framework to address the moral outrage over the societal and environmental impacts of big business that led to the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement?

As Business schools examine why the public mistrusts corporations and their leaders, they should also question their own complicity in training flawed corporate leaders. Business education needs to focus on social, ecological, ethical and economic sustainability of enterprises and their legitimate role in society.

To do so, business schools must take steps in the right direction. For instance, the David O’Brien Centre for Sustainable Enterprise in the John Molson School of Business at Concordia University organized a conference on breaking down silos last year.

Tomorrow’s corporate leaders need to be taught that they need to earn public trust. For this to happen, ethics and sustainability must become core business schools subjects.

There’s more to business than making money. Sustainability, equity and ethics must be corporate keystones and the bedrock of business school education. Social responsibility cannot be viewed as a side issue to profit — it is a core issue.

The long-term survival of enterprises, big and small, depends on sustainable and ethical leadership. The Occupy Wall Street movement is a wake-up call for business schools to help train ethical leaders.

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