The question of business ethics—or lack thereof—has rarely been more salient than in the past decade or so. From Enron’s 2001 bankruptcy in light of massive accounting fraud to JP Morgan’s 2013 $13 billion settlement over dubious mortgage practices, major corporations have fallen under increased scrutiny. Given that many of the people running these and other enterprises were trained in top business schools, their training grounds would seem a natural place to address the problem. What can business schools do about this? A lot more than they have, I would argue, since many schools have historically been—and to a large extent still are—reluctant to take clear institutional normative stands. MBA programs endow their students with formidable technical and analytical skill sets, yet remain silent about what might be the larger purpose of their students’ pursuits.
I learned this firsthand as a rookie professor in one of the oldest business schools in the country, the Harvard Business School; on one occasion, I did not remain silent. When teaching a case that centered on a production line in a manufacturing plant, I once asked my students what the line manager’s worst fear might be. “A union,” one student retorted. By that, he meant a strike led by the union that would stop the line. I had not yet learned that the school expected silence of me in such circumstances. Instead, I stepped in and reminded my students of the pros of unions, making my bias fairly evident. The discussion proved harder to restart. That day, I also learned a lesson: For a school faculty member, stating one’s normative position was apparently unhelpful. Ethics come in many flavors, and the more the better.
While being relatively silent about one’s opinions might be an awkward posture in this often polarized age, it would have come more naturally to me had I earned an MBA degree at the Harvard Business School. Indeed, I likely would have read during my second year of MBA studies a text titled The Silence of the Sky. It would have taught me that “we look upon the world with questioning eyes that search for meaning, and we are turned back upon our questions with no answers.” I would have learned that “we seek in vain for the value, the virtue, the cause that is ultimate … And still the sky is silent.” The text’s implication was clear: Absolute moral clarity was elusive, if not wholly illusory. Had I been more strongly socialized into the school’s culture, I would have known that my role as instructor was to act out the part of the silent sky.
Archival data suggests that, throughout its history, the Harvard Business School desired—if not engineered—such normative silence on the part of faculty. Even today, the school refrains from defining proper business conduct. For instance, teaching notes (authored by faculty members) that inform the school’s current formal ethics curriculum call for managers’ actions to “be guided and consistent with relevant ethical standards.” Yet they remain silent on the nature of those standards. A similar silence prevails in the hundreds of other notes that provide the backbone of the entire MBA curriculum. An analysis of these notes shows that they rarely allude to broader goals such as creating jobs or growing a nation’s economy. Instead, they merely describe the proper steps that business leaders need to take to reach unspecified goals; they refrain from scripting the end pursuits. The assumption still seems to be that under-specifying morality is the way to go.
What does silence have to do with learning and ethics? A lot, I believe. Almost eight years since joining the school’s faculty, I have learned to appreciate what silence allows and how it can foster classroom debate. Yet when seen in the aggregate, the results are more mixed. The school has now trained, for more than a century, students with wide-ranging results. Many business figures—including a celebrated former New York City Mayor and the often-decried former Enron CEO—have graduated from the school. They obviously were not solely “made” on campus, since they were already shaped adults upon entry. But they all spent two intensive years living in a unique context, where the institutional endorsement of any specific moral viewpoint seemed shunned.
What kind of imprinting might come from such a socialization model? And what does this mean, more broadly, for business education? Answers to these questions lie, in part, in more openly acknowledging who might benefit from such silence. Despite their innovative curricula and cutting-edge research, business schools remain old communities in new clothes. They reflect and uphold the norms of older elites. Silence therefore benefits the established order. By remaining silent on moral goals, business schools make it easier to ignore glaring social inequities. If gaining market share is seen as being as important as creating jobs, flagrant injustices are hard to pinpoint, let alone address.
An educational model built on a silent approach to morality—allowing “all flavors” to coexist—seems to uphold the notions of freedom dear to so many of us, but also ends up de-politicizing the issues of greatest importance to the greatest number. When there is copious evidence that some corporate behaviors are egregiously immoral and millions of people are now facing radically reduced living conditions because of the actions of a select few, silence can no longer be the answer. Silence becomes an excuse not to notice and not to act.
The time has come for business schools to break the cycle of institutional silence. To do so, they need to give priority to the needs of those who have benefited least from the wealth generated by 21st-century business. One important first step toward achieving this goal is to acknowledge that promoting silence amounts to endorsing a normative viewpoint—one that encapsulates the elite’s desire to best handle (or avoid) conflict. That silence, or the under-specification of morality, ends up being the “only” way to go implies a choice made by a select few. Understanding this choice requires unpacking with students the mechanisms that have contributed to naturalize the “moral” narrative in elite business schools and help them identify its main beneficiaries.
As an educator, one of my hopes is to demystify the naturalization of historical construction, or what we take for granted, in everyday life. Unpacking silence contributes to this demystification. Indeed, it is illusory to believe that in silence all flavors of ethics can coexist under the sun. Those at the raw end of business dealings can attest to this. Some forms of ethics only benefit those already in power, and can destroy others’ security and hope. It’s time to recognize these limits of silence and hope that future corporate leaders graduating from business schools remember them.