How this Program Came into Existence

Thomas White, Director, Center for Ethics and Business

For about 10 years before I came to LMU, there was an annual "Business Ethics Week" program.  When I was hired, I was told that I'd be expected to take this program over in my second year.  I observed the 1995 event that had been arranged before my arrival, and I was concerned that the students' role was almost completely passive--mainly listening to speakers.  Because I think that business schools should train students in the practical skills they'll use in "doing business," I decided to re-design the program.  The central traits of the new program would be: students (not "experts") would be center-stage; everyone involved would take some sort of active role; and because this was an ethics program, somewhere along the way we had to do some practical good for someone.

The first thing I did was to create something modeled after what I did when I moved from teaching philosophy to teaching business ethics.  That is, this program is the direct result of a decision I made in 1989 to transition from teaching philosophy at a liberal arts college (Upsala College) to teaching ethics in a business school (Rider University).  Rider's College of Business Administration has an especially practical perspective about business education, and the Dean strongly encouraged "experiential learning" in our courses.  Accordingly, I interviewed a variety of senior executives with Fortune 500 companies and asked them: "What are the practical skills that I should get my students to focus on? What is it that new hires lack?"  To a person, they replied that new hires were weak at working on teams, speaking in public, and handling the often competing demands involved in maximizing profits while operating according to the highest ethical principles.  Therefore, I built one of my courses around team projects, presentations that were judged by men and women from area businesses, and the integration of legal, financial and ethical issues.

Because this course was so successful at Rider, I used it as the basis for the new program at LMU.  I expanded "Business Ethics Week" so that it was now a two-week program ("Business Ethics Fortnight") and I made its centerpiece a university-wide business ethics competition.  Students assemble their own teams and choose a contemporary ethical issue in business.  Teams prepare a presentation that identifies the legal, financial and ethical dimensions of the problem, and they then propose a solution that passes muster on all three fronts.  (Teams are expected to have a rigorous and scholarly grasp of the ethical issues, but they must then translate their insights into everyday language appropriate for a business setting.)  A panel of judges questions the team, and then gives feedback about the strengths and weaknesses of their work.  We have both preliminary and final rounds in the competition, and we award cash prizes for the top teams.  Students thus become the center of attention, take an active role and learn practical skills.  Judges (mainly people from business) can't just sit and listen.  They have to engage the students and then give them helpful advice.

I thought that this was a good start.  It was more practical than most academic programs, but still not as practical as what I thought should be going on at a business school (which, I've always thought, should model themselves more after conservatories than research institutions).  The next step was to figure out how we were going to do something that would benefit other people.  Because I'm a runner, it's not surprising that I thought that we should put on a community 5K/10K run and donate the proceeds to a local group.  (For a variety of reasons, we ultimately selected an environmental organization based in Santa Monica--Heal the Bay.  We generally get between 600 and 700 people for the race, and we've raised about $25,000 for the group over the years.)

But now came the challenge of how to get students involved—because I also wanted to put on the run so that students could learn first-hand about the many benefits of running.  I wanted them to see the connection between mind and body and to develop healthy habits early in life.  I also felt that, if they approached the race properly and trained appropriately, they'd learn that running helps you develop patience, focus, discipline and the like.  (One of the challenges with putting on an ethics program at a university is that many people mistakenly think that it should somehow make students better people.  For a variety of reasons that I'm happy to explain to anyone interested, I do not believe that character education is either an appropriate or achievable goal for such a program at the university level.  However, training for long-distance athletics can develop positive character traits, and I wanted my students to experience that.)

Well, you can imagine how a group of 20 year olds would react to their professor saying, "In addition to preparing a business presentation, I want you to run 10 kilometers early one Saturday morning."  So, I came up with an incentive—a secondary competition.  In addition to the presentation competition, we'd also have an optional academic/athletic competition that I called "L.A.'s Weirdest Biathlon."  Teams would get half of their score from the judges' assessment of their presentations.  The other half would come from the team's performance in the race.  (To even out gender differences, we take the top three scores based on finishing place in gender.  Moreover, we'd have cash prizes not only for the academic portion, but for each division of the biathlon (5K and 10K) as well.  As it turns out, the biathlon prizes are the least predictable—because 50% comes from each discipline.

I launched the first "Business Ethics Fortnight" in 1996 as a campus program with the idea that we'd work out the kinks for a few years and gradually go regional and then national.  The program grew faster than expected.  In 1999, we had our first intercollegiate competition.  Since then, we've gradually expanded—both in number of teams and the duration of the program.  (It now stretches over three weeks, so I guess I need to call it something other than "Fortnight.")  This past spring, we had 37 teams from 34 different colleges and universities.  This included one team from Canada and another from Turkey.  We now have separate undergraduate and graduate divisions (28 and 9 teams, respectively, this year).  To my surprise and delight, a large number of students (usually a majority) do the run—even if their teams aren't competing in the biathlon.

One of the most gratifying things about this is that some other schools have designed competitions modeled after ours, with local variations, and they typically include some athletic component.  (The University of Arizona in Tuscon and the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey come to mind.)

So that's how this program came to be.