Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Schools as Shapers of Culture and Ethics

I was reading Peter Berkowitz's op-ed in the Wall Street Journal "Ethics 101" about the duty of universities to consider the ethical issues surrounding education. The (very pointed) ethical questions he gives include the following:

  • Is it proper for university disciplinary boards, often composed of faculty and administrators with no special knowledge of the law, to investigate student accusations of sexual assault by fellow students, which involve crimes for which perpetrators can go to jail for decades?
  • Should universities have one set of rules and punishments for students who plagiarize or pay others to write their term papers, and another -- and lesser -- set for professors who plagiarize or pay others to write their articles and books, or should students and faculty be held to the same tough standards of intellectual integrity?
  • How can universities respect both professors' academic freedom and students' right to be instructed in the diversity of opinions?
  • What is the proper balance in hiring, promotion, and tenure decisions between the need for transparency and accountability and the need for confidentiality?
  • What institutional arrangements give university trustees adequate independence from the administrators they review?
  • Is it consistent with their mission for university presses to publish books whose facts and footnotes they do not check?
  • In accordance with what principles may a university bar ROTC from campus because of the military's "don't ask, don't tell policy" concerning homosexuals, while inviting to campus a foreign leader whose country not only punishes private consensual homosexual sex but is the world's leading state sponsor of terrorism, and who himself denies the Holocaust and threatens to obliterate the sovereign state of Israel?

Point taken.

But the incorporation of ethics into professional schools' curricula is still lacking. I came across a gem of a New York Times op-ed written by Robert Shiller (author of Irrational Exuberance) in 2005 titled "How Wall Street Learns to Look the Other Way." The "how" is in the lack of ethics training in business schools.

A couple of nice excerpts:

And, as with any situation in which we are puzzled by how a group of people can think in a seemingly odd way, it helps to look back to how they were educated. Education molds not just individuals but also common assumptions and conventional wisdom. And when it comes to the business world, our universities - and especially their graduate business schools - are powerful shapers of the culture.

That said, the view of the world that one gets in a modern business curriculum can lead to an ethical disconnect. The courses often encourage a view of human nature that does not inspire high-mindedness.

Consider financial theory, the cornerstone of modern business education. The mathematical theory that has developed over the decades has proved extremely valuable in general. But when it comes to individuals, the theory runs into some problems. In effect, it portrays people as nothing more than "maximizers" of their own "expected utility." This means that people are expected to be totally selfish, constantly calculating their own advantage, with no thought of others. If the premise is that everyone would steal the silverware if he knew he could get away with it, and if we spend the entire semester developing the implications of this assumption, then it is hard to know where to begin to talk about ethics.

Ultimately, the problem at the university level is a tendency toward overspecialization. Each professor gains expertise in a certain kind of research skill; that is how subject matter is defined. The specialty of financial theory has largely come to be defined by skills manipulating a narrow class of mathematical models of purely selfish behavior. Business ethics is just another academic specialty, and can seem as remote as microbiology to those studying financial theory.

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