Why B-Schools Are Tackling Social Issues

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Business Schools Are Revising Curriculum To Address Social Issues

In mid 2017, Uber’s Travis Kalanick stepped down as chief executive following months of turmoil. The move came after Uber had been exposed for having a culture riddled with sexual harassment and gender inequality—the image of a stereotypical Silicon Valley start-up gone wrong.

Across the nation, MBA programs are studying real life companies like Uber, and reshaping curriculum to explore ethical and social issues behind the headlines. David Gelles and Claire Cain Miller, reporters at The New York Times, recently examined how MBA programs are adapting to tackle issues like sexual harassment head on.

“There’s a turning point in what’s expected from business leaders,” Leanne Meyer, co-director of a new leadership department at the Carnegie Mellon Tepper School of Business, tells The New York Times. “Up until now, business leaders were largely responsible for delivering products. Now, shareholders are looking to corporate leaders to make statements on what would traditionally have been social justice or moral issues.”

A Push for Change

The New York Times reports that b-schools across the nation are revising curriculum to prioritize social and environmental responsibility. “At Vanderbilt, there are classes on Uber and ‘bro’ culture. At Stanford, students are studying sexual harassment in the workplace. And at Harvard, the debate encompasses sexism and free speech.”

From the #MeToo movement to social justice protests in the NFL, social issues have created a call for change. Such calls are filtering their way into the MBA classroom.

Revised Curriculum

In a recent survey by a United Nations group and Australia’s Macquarie University, business students report that ethical issues are a business’s most important responsibility.

LaToya Marc is a graduate of Harvard Business School and now works in sales and operations at Comcast. Marc tells The New York Times that ethical issues are starting to directly affect how a company operates and makes decisions.

“There’s a growing body of M.B.A.s who are really passionate about this,” Marc says. “It may not affect your bottom line directly, but it needs to be affecting how you make decisions.”

At Georgetown, Professor Ed Soule’s course is addressing Uber’s sexual harassment and how “companies like Amazon respond when attacked by Mr. Trump.”

“Ethics and values have taken on more significance,” Soule tells The New York Times. “It has to do with all of the things going on in this administration, often things that challenge our understanding of ethics and leadership.”

At the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an ethics course draws directly from topics like behavioral economics and psychology to address issues like sexual harassment. In the course, Stanford students “studied psychological research showing that people are more willing to challenge authority if at least one other person joins them, and discussed ways to encourage such reporting.”

Fern Mandelbaum is a venture capitalist and will be teaching a new class at Stanford GSB called Equity by Design: Building Diverse and Inclusive Organizations.

“It’s not just how the C.E.O. of Uber was treating women,” Mandelbaum tells The New York Times. “The bias is throughout the system.”

At Carnegie Mellon, a new leadership department sprouted up after alumni called for more training related to “skills like empathy and communication.”

Gender Equality

Gender equality has become a major topic of interest among business students. The Forté Foundation, a non-profit organization that works with business schools to launch women into fulfilling, significant careers, recently developed a tool kit to educate and partner men with female peers to encourage gender equity across campuses. According to The New York Times, two dozen schools have already established groups, labeled as “Manbassadors,” amongst their campuses committed to gender equity in schools and the business world.

Alen Amini is a third-year student at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business and founder of its Manbassadors group. Amini tells The New York Times that the goal is “making sure that as men we’re very aware of some of the privileges we’re afforded simply because of gender.”

For Soule, the Georgetown professor, it certainly seems like there is a shift in the classroom atmosphere.

“Something has changed,” he tells The New York Times. “I would be kidding you if I told you there wasn’t a different vibe in the classroom.”

Sources: The New York Times, Principles for Responsible Management Education

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