Bridge over ocean
1 October 2014 CFA Institute Journal Review

You Reap What You Sow: How MBA Programs Undermine Ethics (Digest Summary)

  1. Martin A. Wildy, CFA

An MBA education may negatively affect the practice of management. The author posits that MBA programs mold managers who are unable and unwilling to deal with ethics. He examines how the content, pedagogy (method), and philosophical underpinning of MBA teaching have put management education on a negative trajectory.

What’s Inside?

The author first examines how management theory and MBA education have worked together to marginalize ethics. He then examines the pedagogical approach, the syllabus, and the dominant philosophical view underlying an MBA education. In the concluding section, he looks at how business schools can teach future business leaders so that they can better balance self-interest with responsibility to others.

How Is This Research Useful to Practitioners?

The author provides a sharp criticism of MBA programs. He suggests that MBA programs do not focus enough on ethics, but rather, they churn out managers with reduced learning abilities and whose ethics are negatively affected. In addition, he believes the managers’ natural leadership abilities are downgraded through the interplay of the syllabus, the pedagogy, and other assumptions of management.

The author cites studies by the Aspen Institute that showed that the longer MBA students are enrolled in school, the greater the emphasis that is placed on shareholder value instead of customers, employees, and products. In addition, MBA students’ confidence in solving ethical conflicts is systematically reduced over the time enrolled. Those with an MBA are less likely to pursue continuing education or use executive education because they believe that they already know everything worth knowing.

In examining teaching methods, the author is critical of the heavy use of case studies when teaching leadership, entrepreneurship, and strategy, which he believes are detrimental to learning and push an unrealistic and amoral or immoral world view. These cases are “solved” on paper, and students focus too much on hard factors and the use of tools or mathematical models to solve every managerial problem.

The author believes that most MBA programs focus on the mechanical application of tools as opposed to philosophical concepts. A 2012 study found that only 25% of all schools with Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) accreditation have ethics as a mandatory course. Using the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania as a representative example, the author examines the program’s syllabus. He asserts that nine courses per semester creates a boot-camp style environment that relies on cramming facts and models but does not provide time to internalize and reflect on more philosophical lessons, such as ethics, even when taught.

The author suggests that perhaps the biggest challenge facing MBA programs is the ideological foundation of economism. He views economism as a radical reinterpretation of Adam Smith’s theory that all people are always driven by selfishness and follow one rationality. This drive results in a focus on maximizing economic utility, potentially at the cost of other noneconomic considerations.

Given the prevalence of MBA programs and increased awareness of the importance of ethics, this article has broad relevance. It will be of particular interest to those who are involved in the teaching or administration of MBA programs. It may also be of interest to students and prospective students to aid in the evaluation of MBA programs.

How Did the Author Conduct This Research?

The author references more than 100 previous papers on such subjects as management education, business leadership, and business ethics. He leverages these works and cites their findings throughout the article. Given the qualitative nature of this paper, there is no collection or analysis of data aside from the conclusions found in previous works. By adopting this approach, the author provides a comprehensive summary of the subject as documented by previous researchers, which he overlays with his own interpretation.

In addition to citing other papers, the author includes a number of his own personal experiences. Although these anecdotal examples are interesting, it is hard to determine whether these are representative of the broader universe. At times studies are cited that reference groups, such as “business and economics students” and “economics professors,” but it is unclear if these apply specifically to MBA programs. It would have been beneficial if more empirical evidence had been included to directly support the author’s hypothesis that an MBA education undermines ethical behavior.

Abstractor’s Viewpoint

The author addresses the important subject of ethics in management education. Given the qualitative approach that the author adopts, this article feels subjective at times. He appears to make a number of very critical generalizations that could unfairly tarnish MBA programs that do place a strong emphasis on ethics. It would make his thesis stronger if more data were included to support these assertions. That said, after the high-profile ethical lapses by management at WorldCom, Tyco, Enron, and numerous financial firms, it is troubling that an MBA education appears to be well behind the learning curve when it comes to ethics.

We’re using cookies, but you can turn them off in Privacy Settings.  Otherwise, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.  Accepting cookies does not mean that we are collecting personal data. Learn more in our Privacy Policy.