Business Schools

Taking B-School on Faith


Is your business school experience going to be all that different if you attend a religiously affiliated institution?

Business and religion haven't always been easy partners. Throughout the centuries, issues of faith and the demands of business have sometimes been at odds, and most religions have imposed ethical prescriptions on business dealings. For most B-school students, these issues arise most often in the ethics components of the curriculum. For students at institutions that have a religious affiliation, business and ethics are often more closely intertwined in the curriculum. But not always.

Business schools in religiously affiliated universities are constantly struggling to balance the integrity of the institution's ties to its religion and the obligation to educate a diverse student body. It's not always easy, and it sparks discussion among applicants even before they've been accepted (see BusinessWeek.com B-Schools Forum). But top-rated business schools that are religiously affiliated say their students—regardless of their beliefs—benefit from the spirituality of the place and the attention given to creating a life that goes beyond dollars and cents.

In fact, many religiously affiliated B-schools are among the top programs in the U.S., including the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business; the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University; the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University; and the Carroll School of Management at Boston College, which is a Jesuit institution.

A Higher Purpose

These schools are recognized for their academic rigor and the quality of managers they produce. The administrators at most religiously affiliated B-schools say that their schools have had a focus on ethics since long before the corporate scandals that forced other secular schools to provide such programs. In other words, doing the right thing—and discussing it—is considered an ingrained part of the culture.

For the most part, top business schools have the same curriculum requirements. It's what happens inside the classroom—the discussions, books, and examples—that makes one B-school experience different from another. At a religiously affiliated program, subtle choices on the part of the professor sometimes demonstrate the unique culture. For example, in a business law class at Mendoza, students were assigned Business as a Calling (Free Press, 1996), a book written by Catholic theologian and author Michael Novak, about how businesspeople have a purpose higher than earning money.

Joseph Holt, director for Executive Ethics in Executive Education at Notre Dame, says he approaches discussion of work in his business ethics class the Catholic way, having a three-pronged moral significance: the primary way to reach self-realization, provide for material needs, and contribute to a larger community.

An Emphasis on Spirituality

The expectations of students for such material varies. Holt recalls mentioning the Bible story of The Good Samaritan as an example in his course on business ethics. One of his students was surprised that a religious story could be brought up in a business class. But Holt was himself surprised at the students' reaction. "Getting upset about hearing an example from the Bible at a Catholic university is like getting upset if they sing in Italian at the opera," responds Holt. Religion is by no means the curricular focus, adds Holt, but it certainly can play a role in the discussion.

Students also have the option to tap into their spirituality more often on the campus of a religiously affiliated university—but only if they want to. Mass is held daily at Notre Dame for those who want to attend. There are two electives, "Spirituality of Work" and "Spirituality and Religion in the Workplace" that graduate business students can opt to take. Holt says the school's challenge is to balance the proper-noun Catholic (for Catholicism) with the common-noun catholic (for universal).

None of the top religiously affiliated business schools deny admittance to those of different faiths. On the contrary, administrators at these schools say that diversity is key to their success, and they embrace people of all creeds. But applicants still have to decide if the culture is the right fit for them. Joseph Ogden, assistant dean at the major university of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), says that Brigham Young University's B-school's affinity with the Mormon faith has a large effect on the education and environment of the campus. For one thing, the church provides most of the funding for the school and, therefore, has a strong influence on the curriculum.

Sharing Values

Indeed, every student who applies to the Marriott school has to have some sort of recommendation from a member of the clergy—such as a minister, priest, or rabbi. Those who get accepted and attend must adhere to the honor code. Besides the usual prohibition of cheating and plagiarism, the code requires that students refrain from consuming alcohol, tobacco, illegal drugs, tea, and coffee. Students also must follow the dress code, which means among other things, no beards, cut-off sleeves, or shorts above the knee.

Spirituality may enter the conversation in class. The benefit of a school like this, says Ogden, is having the ability to speak freely in class about religion with no fear of reprisal. Some of the Mormon students have done missions abroad and bring those experiences to the discussion. Many professors start class with a prayer.

You do not have to be Mormon to be a Marriott student, says Ogden, but you do have to share similar values. He adds that many students from Asia have similar cultural beliefs and find they fit in well at Marriott.

"You Could Feel the Difference"

Still, the lifestyle is not for everybody. "If you don't have any religious [beliefs], you'll feel more like an outsider," says Bea Cortes, a 2006 Marriott graduate and leadership development consultant at Bank of America (BAC). A Catholic, Cortes says she felt at home at Marriott almost immediately. "You could feel the difference when you walked in the door," she says. Cortes found the students to be more professional and respectful of one another.

She adds that she was treated as an individual rather than a number, which she says was different from her experience as an undergraduate at California State University, Los Angeles. She didn't mind nixing coffee, tea, and alcohol from her diet, nor did she disapprove of praying before class. And she says that she learned as much, if not more, about business than she would at any other school.

But not all schools hew so closely to their religious roots. Religion plays no role in the curriculum at the graduate level at Boston College, says Jeffrey L. Ringuest, associate dean for graduate programs. He adds that the religious affiliation might attract students who are more team-focused and want to form a unified community. But the only real difference people might notice, says Ringuest, is that Carroll students since 2004 are required to perform community service.

Ethics at Secular Schools

The main goal of religiously affiliated MBA programs is no different from other B-schools: to prepare students to lead businesses and manage people. "First and foremost, we provide first-class business education," says Ringuest. Religion, or the values of a particular religious faith, might come up once in a while during case-study discussions, but you're still going to learn the basics of accounting, strategy, marketing, general management, and so on.

Meanwhile, "secular" schools aren't ignoring the ethical imperatives that different religious traditions bring to the business world. Having a broad understanding of major religions is part of a solid liberal arts education and is a great foundation for business students, says Ibrahim Warde, an adjunct professor of international business at the Fletcher School of the secular Tufts University.

It helps MBAs better comprehend the politics and cultures of the global marketplace, says Warde, who teaches Islamic finance courses (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/30/07, "A Fresh Take on Islamic Finance"). But he adds that religion should never be the central focus of a business program and that an applicant's main priority is to get the best education possible. Plenty of B-schools with no connections to organized religion provide just that.

Most experts agree, however, that business and religion do not have to be mutually exclusive. "Having a well-rounded belief goes a long way to helping a person apply himself," says Jeff Benedict, author of The Mormon Way of Doing Business (Warner Business Books, January 2007). "Having a bigger perspective —an idea that there is more to life than money—is a good way to protect you and insulate you against things like greed." No one is suggesting that folks have to wear their spirituality on their sleeves on campus or in the office. But administrators and students at religiously affiliated B-schools are saying that faith might support you as you climb the ladder in your career.


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