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23 Deans Convene for Business Ethics Conference

23 Deans Convene for Business Ethics Conference

Fr. Donald Nesti, Dr. Robert Ivany, Fr. Michael Czerny, S.J., and Dr. Beena GeorgeBusiness school deans from 23 Catholic universities gathered in Houston on March 31 for a groundbreaking business ethics conference hosted by the University of St. Thomas-Houston’s Center for Faith and Culture in collaboration with the Cameron School of Business.

Spurred by the sobering implications of the 2008 financial meltdown, and guided by Pope Benedict’s call in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate for financiers to “rediscover the genuine ethical foundation” of their work, the three-day conference was convened by the Center for Faith and Culture to explore ways to better prepare graduates from Catholic business schools for the ethical challenges they will encounter in the workplace, organizers said.  

Creating the Ethos of a Catholic Business School

To help participants understand the severity and breadth of those challenges, and discern more effective strategies for teaching business ethics, the conference provided a rare combination of academic best-practices speakers, a review of the principles of Catholic social teaching, and insights from both business executives and industry whistleblowers.

The Rev. Donald Nesti, director of the Center for Faith and Culture, said the Center wanted to offer business deans a unique opportunity to reflect on ways to incorporate a truly holistic understanding of Catholic teaching throughout the curricula of their institutions.

“How do you create the ethos of a Catholic business school—this is the issue!” Nesti said.

Business Practitioners Called to Foster the Common Good

In a keynote address prepared by Cardinal Peter Turkson, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, and delivered by his assistant, the Rev. Michael Czerny, S.J., Czerny said core principles of human dignity, the common good, solidarity, subsidiarity and stewardship must inform the decisions of business leaders so they “produce goods that are truly good, and services that truly serve.”  

Business educators, in turn, are called to form students who “lead an integrated life” of faith and work, Czerny said. In a culture that often emphasizes the notion that “ethics is costly while cutting corners is profitable,” business graduates need both the formation and tools to “speak up courageously and act as needed,” he observed.

To provide that formation, Catholic business schools need to do more than offer “a few ethics courses,” Czerny said; their curricula as a whole must be grounded in Catholic social teaching.

“Too often, ethics are applied like paint when the building is already done,” he observed.  “That’s not ethics—that’s decoration.”

“Real-World” Ethics: An Uphill Battle

Dr. Michael Naughton, Fr. Oliver Williams, CSC, Dr. Mary Gentile, Dr. Kenneth Goodpaster and Dr. George BrenkertBut “getting ethics right in the real world,” is a formidable challenge, and college ethics courses seem to be having little impact, warned speaker Bethany McLean, co-author of bestsellers such as “The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron” and “All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis.”

A complex and insidious mixture of self-delusion, egoism, insecurity and greed lies behind most financial scandals, she observed; “It’s rarely as simple as a bunch of people sitting in a dark room plotting to take down the company.”

Meanwhile, McLean noted, entry-level MBA grads are ill-equipped by most schools to identify and navigate ethical dilemmas in the workplace. Trained to focus on profit maximization and legal compliance, they consider themselves lowly industry “cogs” until they tragically discover “the law is random” and “the cog becomes someone who spends time in jail.”

If business schools can teach students there is a big difference between what is legal and what is ethical, ground their discussion of ethics in practical case studies, and even help them “re-conceptualize” business as a means for human development rather than simply considering “the religion of the bottom line,” the long-term impact of such broader perspectives can be “enormous,” McLean said later.

Transforming Students to Approach Business as a Vocation

Catholic business schools have a distinct advantage and responsibility in teaching ethics, noted speaker Michael Naughton, Director of the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought at the University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.

Ethical values, deeply rooted in the Church’s theological and philosophical tradition, “should pervade everything” at a Catholic business school, he said, and promote a truly “transformational” education that teaches students to approach business as a multidimensional vocation characterized by “good works, good goods, and good wealth.”

As Churchill famously wrote, “First we shape our institutions, and then they shape us,” observed Naughton’s colleague and renowned business ethicist Kenneth Goodpaster, who was also a conference speaker.

Catholic business schools should stand out from their secular counterparts in their “purposeful attempt” to form students who don’t simply demonstrate business competencies but also apply those skills in a way that reflects Catholic social teaching and the idea of business as a values-based vocation, said Cameron School of Business Dean and conference organizer Dr. Beena George.

“That’s the key difference,” she said.

The Beginning of an Evolution: ‘We Can’t Afford to Fail’

On the last day of the conference, deans convened in roundtable discussions to explore practical ways to more effectively teach business ethics in their schools based on current gaps and challenges.

Business faculty need more incentives, formation and resources to convey not merely ethical principles but also their “decision-point" application, deans agreed.

Others observed that Catholic business schools must network with other departments and universities as they strive to more fully integrate and reflect Catholic social teaching and their university’s mission in their curricula. 

Curriculum game-changers such as the Vatican’s text “The Vocation of the Business Leader” and speaker Mary Gentile’s “Giving Voice to Values” program, an innovative approach developed at Harvard University that teaches students how to act on their values in the workplace, are invaluable resources in these efforts, many deans noted.

A white paper outlining the complete recommendations of the conference, as well as a call for a follow-up conference next year, will be released by the Cameron School of Business.

“Hopefully this will be the beginning of an evolution in the way that business ethics is taught,”

said UST business ethics professor and conference organizer Dr. John Simms. “We cannot afford to fail—the headlines tell us the damage that is incurred when we do.”

See conference results, photos and videos. 

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The Donald S. Nesti, CSSp Center for Faith & Culture
The Center seeks to understand and affect the relationship between and among the many facets of the American way of life in relation to God’s ongoing, loving encounter with humanity. We educate faith-full citizens to be artisans of dialogue and proclamation in articulating a God-centered vision of the world and how that vision strengthens the institutions that govern us as a people. Through its programmatic offerings the Center serves the local and regional Catholic, ecumenical and interreligious communities, our sister university communities, civic society, and various professional segments of our culture.
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