MBA Oath Loses Traction at Yale

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on May 25, 2010

It looks like the MBA Oath, a controversial attempt to give the business world its own version of the Hippocratic Oath, may be suffering its first major defeat. The Community Blog at the Yale School of Management (Yale Full-Time MBA Profile) is reporting that an SOM Town Hall meeting ended without an endorsement of the oath. According to the post, “We didn’t reach a consensus, so we won’t join, nor formally oppose the Business Oath. Future classes may decide to take a stance, but for now, the conversation has begun, and individuals can sign or not sign as they see fit.” Bottom line: an oath that has been enthusiastically embraced by virtually every top b-school is getting a noncommittal shrug from Yale.

A lot’s been written about the oath movement, and nobody’s more guilty of contributing to the overkill than yours truly. We first wrote about the oath that originated at Harvard back in June. Two of the Harvard organizers, Humberto Moreira and Whitney Petersmeyer, took on their critics in an essay we published in December. And just a few days ago, Bloomberg News published an update on the movement and some of the controversy surrounding it. There’s also a book by two of the Harvard organizers, Max Anderson and Peter Escher, “The MBA Oath: Setting a Higher Standard for Business Leaders.” And that’s not even counting all the ink that’s been spilled over the The Oath Project, a separate (though similar) movement launched by a group that includes the World Economic Forum, the United Nations Global Compact, Net Impact, the Aspen Institute, and others.

It was the Oath Project that the Yale students were debating in their town hall meeting. According to the blog post, the students found a lot to applaud about the oath, including the idea that it could be the start of a large-scale reformation of business to be more socially responsible. But they also found some shortcomings, including the lack of an enforcement mechanism to punish violations of the oath, and the possibility that for some business schools and individuals it might turn out to be an empty gesture, “a convenient way to demonstrate ethics without taking the more difficult steps to actually reform their curricula or businesses.”

It’s worth noting that even though Yale hasn’t officially endorsed the oath, individual Yale SOM students have. It’s unclear how many have taken part in the Oath Project, but 11 have signed the Harvard MBA Oath, including a current student, a few from the Class of 2010, and grads from as far back as 1986. Nothing like the 828 from Harvard, but about on par with some other top schools. As of a few minutes ago, a total of 3,100 people have signed the oath.

I find all of this really interesting—the notion of management as a profession, the idea that an oath can be a way to accomplish that, and the debate over the oath’s legitimacy and power to change behavior. But frankly, I haven’t made up my mind about any of it. What’s everybody think about the developments at Yale? Is the oath movement in trouble? Or does it have momentum?

Reader Comments

David W. Frasie

May 26, 2010 8:37 AM

I'm not sure why this "movement" is getting so much press now and why Harvard is getting the credit for "inventing" the oath concept. This goes back probably half a dozen years and was initiated by the current president of Thunderbird, Dr. Angel Cabrera, when he was dean at IE Business School in Madrid.


May 26, 2010 9:35 AM

Louis - provocative post and a timely one as graduation approaches for many MBAs in the Class of 2010. A couple of thoughts: (1) the MBA Oath and the Oath Project are in alignment, with the MBA Oath acting in concert with the Oath Project including Angel Cabrera at Thunderbird. (2) the thoughtful objections by Yale MBA students are similar to those objections raised by students at other campuses, including Harvard. We are not sure if we can overcome every objection, but we think the discourse is meaningful and a progressive step.

Peter Escher
MBA Oath

BW's Louis Lavelle

May 26, 2010 10:32 AM

Hey Peter, thanks for weighing in. Before I wrote the post I visited the MBA Oath web site to see how many Yale students had signed and was kind of surprised to see that a lot of top schools had relatively few signers. Do you have any idea why? I don't think the movement is losing steam--there were people signing it while I was on the web site--but the relative paucity of signers at some top schools really surprised me.
David, you're right about the origins of the oath. But the post doesn't credit Harvard with inventing the idea, and our first story on this back in June mentions the oath Angel Cabrera started at Thunderbird. The reason it's getting so much press now is that the Harvard oath and the Oath Project have turned into a global movement. Hope that helps.
Louis Lavelle
Associate Editor
Bloomberg Businessweek


May 29, 2010 9:47 AM

The MBA Oath is exactly the type of superficial extracurricular that overachieving MBA types love to put on their résumés and use as a way to boast about their own greatness at cocktail parties.

This Oath is at odds with 200 years of economic theory, can be (mis)interpreted in such a way that it could never be broken, and has no mechanism for monitoring or enforcement. It is only of symbolic value: that is to say it is for politics.


May 31, 2010 9:32 PM

It is losing steam because it is unenforceable. Without teeth it is nothing more than another "feel good" attempt to address the problems of ethics and social responsibility. Even my undergraduates were bright enough to figure this out when we discused it back in the fall. It does potentially raise awareness of the issues, but awareness alone is not enough to reshape existent behavior.


June 3, 2010 1:39 AM

The article mistakenly claims Yale is a top bschool. That not being the case, the fact that 11 students signed the oath is hardly news worthy.


June 4, 2010 5:25 PM

To respond to your question: "why the relative paucity of signers at other top schools?" You point out the critical issue: we do earnestly work towards gaining traction at other top global business schools, and hope that day will be soon. We acknowledge that the so called "top-tier" schools are important to reach, as, like it or not, their status provides a source of credibility. We also understand that outside of the top-tier there are literally tens of thousands of MBA degrees conferred every year from MBA programs. These MBAs will make as much of a difference in the business world as the ones from the top-tier programs.

MBA Oath

Post a comment



Read daily reports from BusinessWeek editors and reporters Louis Lavelle, Geoff Gloeckler, Alison Damast and Francesca Di Meglio and boost your chances of getting into your best-fit B-school.

BW Mall - Sponsored Links

Buy a link now!