Sweet Briar doing the right thing with ethics

Posted on February 21, 2006 by Suzanne Ramsey

Sweet Briar College is going to battle with the proverbial “slippery slope,” arming students with skills needed to negotiate the business world and the ethical and moral conflicts that come with it. After the scandals that rocked Enron, WorldCom and Arthur Andersen, among others, professors in Sweet Briar’s business management program thought it was more important than ever to make ethics “stick.”

To accomplish this, they’ve added a half-hour ethics credit to each of the core courses in the business management program. The two-hour classes are held once a week for four consecutive weeks and are tailored to each core course. For example, financial accounting classes study ethical problems associated with being or dealing with accountants, while marketing students might develop strategies for dealing with a misused or defective product.

The hope is that this repeated exposure to ethics will result in lessons that last long after graduation.

Former corporate lawyer Tom Loftus and business professor Suzanne Calvert teach the ethics sections. One thing Loftus said business students need to understand is the source of ethical problems. “People don’t say, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to be a criminal and break the law,’ but you get into situations where your happiness and your successful career depends on pleasing your boss,” he explained.

“Your boss has to hit his numbers and the whole culture is saying, ‘Let’s hit our numbers, let’s hit our numbers,’ and this is what happens at an Enron or a WorldCom. You get tunnel vision and you’re with a lot of other very bright people who say, ‘Oh yeah, this is alright, we’re bending the rules a little bit. This will be OK. This is cool.’ “

But it’s not just legal knowledge; students need to know themselves, Loftus said, adding that two questions can simplify things when faced with an ethical dilemma: “Would you be proud if your mother knew you were doing this? Or would you care if it was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal?”

Sweet Briar’s business management program grew out of its business certificate program, which was expanded in 2004 thanks to a $37,000 grant from the James S. Kemper Foundation. Business professor Bill Hostetler was already using hands-on projects and simulations to teach real-world experience in the certificate program, so a good foundation was there. All it lacked was an ethics component and the answer to one question: How do you teach ethics in a way that won’t put everyone to sleep?

To help answer this question, Hostetler recruited Loftus and the two brainstormed, coming up with several possibilities. “When we wrote the grant we thought of perhaps doing a two-semester sequence, something partnering with the philosophy department, coming off a very formal, rigorous study of morals and ethics and leading into business,” Loftus said. “But the more Bill thought about that the more he thought that was not the way to do it.”

During the 2004-2005 senior seminar, Hostetler tried teaching a semester-long ethics class and found it largely ineffective. “It bores the heck out of people” he said, and it all sounded the same after a few sessions.

Hostetler and Loftus also considered tasking professors with adding ethics to their curricula but that wasn’t the answer either. It wasn’t practical to ask a professor with a full syllabus to cut into his or her class time to add business ethics.

What they needed, Hostetler concluded, was an ethics specialist who could drop in periodically and teach ethics. Loftus, who also has degrees in anthropology and economics, became the most logical candidate. Hostetler suggested Loftus be a sort of roving ethicist, spending a couple of weeks with each class. However, this approach was still problematic, because professors would still lose valuable class time.

In the end, the answer came from a variety of sources, including one in their own back yard. “They do these honors variants here at Sweet Briar,” Loftus said. “You take a three-hour lecture course and then you add a fourth hour where the students who are taking it for honors credit — as an honors variant — meet with faculty and go beyond what the other students are doing in that three hour section.”

A similar format was adopted and the new ethics classes started last fall. So far, things are looking good. “It was very effective,” Loftus said. “The students were very enthused; there was a lot of animated discussion, and it was very hands on. We did the in-class simulation and it was great.”

Indeed, its success is one more indicator that Hostetler, Loftus and the rest of the business faculty must be doing something right. After only two years, business management majors already outnumber those in psychology — formerly the most popular major among juniors and seniors — nearly two to one.

It is Sweet Briar’s hope that this marriage of liberal arts and business will produce 21st-century businesswomen with a broader world view. “The students still fulfill all of the [general education] requirements,” Loftus said. “They’re encouraged to double major [or] have a second minor. They’re encouraged very much to do a year aboard. It’s clearly a business program in a small, liberal arts college context.”