Viewpoint: Ethics, humanities needed more than ever in business education

Wednesday, September 18, 2019 - 11:02

By Debra Salvucci | Peter Ubertaccio – Dean, Leo J. Meehan School of Business | Dean, Thomas and Donna May School of Arts & Sciences

In a long-overdue shift in priorities, the top CEOs in America, represented by the U.S. Business Roundtable, recently announced that stakeholders — employees, the community at large, the environment, and customers — are as important as shareholders. Essentially, the country’s top business leaders have reversed the mantra of several decades that said workers, community and the environment take a back seat to driving up shareholder returns.

This injection of ethics into the discussion of how America does business has never been more needed. Skyrocketing pay at the top and stagnation at the bottom, galloping climate change, leveraged buyouts that crush healthy businesses with debt and the constant search for higher earnings regardless of the ramifications for workers and communities — all are the result of a business ethos that has ignored the idea of responsibility, of ethics.

But lasting change doesn’t just start at the top, it also flows upward. This puts a special burden on the business programs at colleges and universities to ensure they do not simply promote their degree as a ticket to quantity in life. Too often, for example, finance courses existed in a vacuum, one where concerns about wage disparity or conflict of interest or insider trading were of little interest. That failure has combined with another trend, to pressure higher education away from the traditional humanities. This trend mistakenly views the liberal arts curriculum as antithetical to the skills needed for employment and an obstacle to creating business-ready graduates who can smoothly move into the economy. 

Like several institutions around the state and the country, Stonehill has dramatically bolstered business education to better prepare our graduates for an everchanging workforce, to be of value in the workplace, and to be able to lay the foundation for a financially sound future. The college has added new master’s-level business courses and recently opened the $35 million Leo J. Meehan School of Business building. Those investments in state-of-the-art facilities and new programs in business and in arts and sciences — such as data analytics, fintech, photonics, integrated marketing, and health sciences — complement a focus at the core of colleges developing leadership in the fields of integrity and good citizenship. 

The best colleges have ethics and moral reasoning built into their curricular DNA.

Business ethics has long been a staple of our business education. The humanities core flows outward to our business and other pre-professional pursuits. After recently reorganizing the college into two schools, we decided to build on that tradition and embed a humanities faculty member in our business school. Having a philosopher in business this year gives our students the opportunity to think deeper, differently, critically, and ethically — all skills that employers value. It’s also a reminder of our foundation as a liberal-arts institution and a reflection of the importance we place on philosophy and ethics.

Students headed into the finance major won’t just learn their craft: They will leave with a philosophical understanding of how moral reasoning impacts business. Students working toward a degree in computer science will graduate equipped to weigh and decide what constitutes ethical data use — an increasingly vital concern when Facebook, Google and questions of privacy dominate our lives. Crucially, the curriculum stresses something that ethical business leaders will require: "courage and conviction."

This emphasis on an education that instills not only technical expertise, but also moral foundations, lies at the core of what America’s top CEOs are asking from their future workforce. In building a more just and compassionate world, our graduates, and those of institutions like Stonehill, are poised to lead a new corporate ecosystem that considers community impact alongside shareholder returns.

Debra Salvucci and Peter Ubertaccio are deans at Stonehill College in Easton. Salvucci is dean of the Leo J. Meehan School of Business, and Ubertaccio is dean of the Thomas and Donna May School of Arts & Sciences. 


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