Business Schools Blamed For VW Ethical Lapse & Bad ‘Bro’ Price Hikes

Chicago Booth behavioral science professor John Paul Rollert

Chicago Booth behavioral science professor John Paul Rollert

Around the same time in 2009, Harvard Business School leadership development professor Rakesh Khurana told the New York Times that in the ‘70s, the idea took hold that managers, instead of being economic stewards, were mainly agents for shareholders. “A kind of market fundamentalism took hold in business education,” Khurana said. “The new logic of shareholder primacy absolved management of any responsibility for anything other than financial results.”

Much more recently, Berkeley publisher Lonnie Hicks, a 1989 U.C. Berkeley MBA, summed up the view that not much has changed, tweeting on Oct. 9 to his 73,000 Twitter followers: “Business school: Networking hotspot where young people pay large sums of money to have their scruples expensively removed. See MBA.”

However, if B-schools are not evolving fast enough for Hicks, business students might be. At the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, MBA candidates sent Queen’s New Republic article to behavioral science professor John Paul Rollert. The students’ concern over ethics education points to the generational change that is turning B-school students’ focus toward impact and away from pure profiteering, Rollert believes. To Rollert, who teaches an ethics course at Booth that was added after the financial crisis, arguments about whether B-schools are to blame for corporate misbehavior are peripheral to the main issue: “The question is, can business schools do more to enhance the integrity of the business world?”


Increasingly, B-schools are responding to “from the ground up” student demands for an education that will position them to make a positive impact on the world, particularly in the area of social enterprise, Rollert says. Booth’s Social Enterprise Initiative is “tremendously popular,” and many students participate in the school’s New Venture Challenge to learn about and develop impact-producing enterprises, he says.

Indeed, a new Bain & Company study supports Rollert’s assertions. Bain surveyed some 1,500 MBA students and graduates, and found that 66% of women and 59% of men said they planned to put impact ahead of prestige and profit in their careers. About 54% of the women responding to the survey and 51% of the men said they wanted to work in social impact.

Part of what’s driving the change in aspirations is a more pro-social culture that’s developed in Silicon Valley, Rollert says. “Whereas 10 or 15 years ago the center of moral gravity for the business world was firmly in Wall Street, it’s now divided between Wall Street and Silicon Valley, and I think the customary norms that shape business in Silicon Valley are far different from those in Wall Street,” Rollert says. He suggests that the Silicon Valley approach to business, as exemplified by Google’s “don’t be evil” mantra and the goal of certain high-profile tech titans to improve the world, may provide “a vision of business that would make Professor Queen more happy.”


The tech sector appeals to students for reasons that go beyond a seemingly “more humane” lifestyle enjoyed by many workers. “The most important thing to them is not becoming wealthy, although they’d love to become wealthy,” Rollert says. “The most important thing to them is making a positive impact on the world.”