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Occupy Our Business Schools

Occupy Wall Street protesters are focused on, among other things, what they see as a lack of social conscience in capitalism. Meanwhile, some of the same capitalists they’re protesting come to us with corporate social responsibility (CSR) at the top of their wish list.

It’s striking even to us. The University of Colorado at Boulder has four Nobel Prize-winning faculty members, a business school with a practical orientation sitting in a city that’s buzzing with entrepreneurship on the industries of the future. That’s all very bottom-line stuff. But the executives we meet with clamor for business school graduates—their future talent—who not only are socially aware but also have the capability to translate that awareness into action.

Does this mean OWS and the corporate world are aligned? No. Companies want graduates with a profit orientation alongside a CSR orientation. They also see product and job creation in themselves as major societal benefits. Those are the good companies. There have always been bad companies, as well as individuals inside companies whose behavior is appalling. Think about the guys at Enron, who were cackling about cutting off grandma’s electricity supply. That comes from a culture created at the top and with no safety valves down the line—which results in good people doing terrible things. And that’s why preparing people who think for themselves—who work some of this out in the safety of a classroom—and are ready for applied ethics is so important.

Our corporate friends envision a 21st century version of business leadership, one that has been building for years. Business can make money, create jobs, and also be an innovator and leader in creating a better world. In an era of governmental paralysis, we may need that more than ever. We need an army of 21st century business leaders—but we don’t yet have enough recruits or sufficient training.


First, business schools just are not doing their teaching job very effectively. The sights are not set high enough. Business schools don’t act as if CSR were an integral part of accounting, finance, marketing, and so on. The practice of finance, for example, can have ethical and social implications every single day—so it needs to be taught that way. And business schools are not taking up the invitation from companies to help move CSR beyond the special departments they’re so often in, and into every department, every day.

Second, business schools aren’t focusing on the right students. Schools have tended to focus on the MBA level. But only about 30 percent of business school graduates in the U.S. are MBAs. We need to focus a lot more on the other 70 percent. Undergraduate business students are still forming their idea of what business is all about. Most undergraduate business programs are the last formal education that most students will get—which means this is our only shot to get them on the right track.


Let’s start by making sure we don’t ask “whether” we can do it right. The companies that hire our graduates are demanding it, our students need and usually want it, and our economy and society rely on it. A great business wouldn’t say, “Can we?” A great business—or business school—would say, “Here’s how we do it in a way that delivers thoroughly.” Be Apple. Be even more than your customers dream possible—not less.

Here’s how:

Make social responsibility part of every subject area in real time. Teach students exactly how social responsibility applies to, say, marketing at the very same time that you’re teaching them to be whizzes at applying all the other tools of that field—in the same class and at the same time as part of a fully integrated toolkit and thought system. They’re inseparable.

Business schools fall short of their potential by separating the inseparable. Most say that teaching values is important, but their values don’t truly penetrate the DNA of the school. Adding an ethics class to a century-old business school program makes ethics marginal, not pervasive. Doing corporate citizenship as an intensive, inspiring orientation is terrific—but the impact is limited if it’s set aside once classes begin.


Once you make ethics and social impact considerations part of how every aspect of business is done, you need to show and practice how all the pieces fit together. Create interactions with corporate executives in which multiple business disciplines plus ethics all come together in one messy ball—because that’s what happens in the real world. At the Leeds School of Business, we also address the multidimensional, multidisciplinary, multimessy nature of the world of work through special courses that pull together all the pieces and highlight how ethics enters into that complicated equation.

We’ve found that you need a structure to support all that. We don’t want knowledge creation or delivery in the traditional core of business disciplines to suffer even a bit. (Good faculty would never permit that anyway.) For us, the support structure is our Center for Education on Social Responsibility. The center finds ways to create integration, gives faculty specific tools and methods to make it happen, and delivers the classes and experiences that bring the pieces together at a macro level.

All our business schools should do this—just as all our business schools need to teach finance. If that happens, we’ll have the army of 21st century business leaders we need.

Join the discussion on the Bloomberg Businessweek Business School Forum, visit us on Facebook, and follow @BWbschools on Twitter.
David L. Ikenberry is the dean of Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Donna Sockell is director of the school's Center for Education on Social Responsibility.

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