Tim Vogus, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s business school, was stoking the debate in his classroom one day this fall, asking first-year MBA students about one of the most successful, and controversial, companies of the day. On the syllabus was Uber, a case study in both sensational business success and rampant corporate misbehaviour.
“A toxic culture might be obvious when you think about Uber,” Vogus said. “But I’m an old person. What is this whole bro thing?”
There were some awkward chuckles, and then hands started popping up. “It’s carrying fraternity culture with you into adult life,” said one student, Nick Glennon. Another student, Jonathon Brangan, said, “It’s arrogance mixed with the feeling of invincibility.”
“You basically have these 20-year-olds who are in charge of these companies that are worth billions of dollars,” said Monroe Stadler, 26. “And they fly too close to the sun.”
An MBA education is no longer just about finance, marketing, accounting and economics. As topics like sexual harassment dominate the national conversation and chief executives weigh in on the ethical and social issues of the day, business schools around the country are hastily reshaping their curricula with case studies ripped straight from the headlines.
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.
“There’s a turning point in what’s expected from business leaders,” said Leanne Meyer, co-director of a new leadership department at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. “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.”
Several factors are contributing to these revised syllabuses. Bad behaviour by big companies has thrust ethics back into the news, from Wells Fargo’s creation of fake checking accounts to sexual harassment at Fox News to the litany of improprieties at Uber. Some millennials are prioritising social and environmental responsibility.
And a new generation of chief executives is speaking out about moral and political issues in the Trump era. Just four months ago, prominent corporate executives came together to dissolve two business councils consulting with President Donald Trump after he blamed “many sides” for an outburst of white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“Something has changed,” said Ed Soule, a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business. “I would be kidding you if I told you there wasn’t a different vibe in the classroom.”
This fall, Soule assigned coursework covering sexual harassment at Uber, how companies like Amazon respond when attacked by Trump and the social justice protests by NFL players.
During one class, students debated whether players should have been more deferential to the wishes of team owners and the league, or whether the league should have supported players more vocally. The conversation grew tense when the topic turned to respect for the national anthem, and Trump’s forceful response to players who continued to kneel as it was played.
“Ethics and values have taken on more significance,” Soule said. “It has to do with all of the things going on in this administration, often things that challenge our understanding of ethics and leadership.”
Professors are reacting to the news, but they are also responding to calls from students for classes that deal with ethics. In recent years, students have said ethical issues, not finances, are a business’ most important responsibility, according to a survey of business school students worldwide conducted by a UN group and Macquarie University in Australia.
“There’s a growing body of MBAs who are really passionate about this,” said LaToya Marc, who graduated from Harvard Business School last spring and now works in sales and operations at Comcast. “It may not affect your bottom line directly, but it needs to be affecting how you make decisions.”
Students also realise that as leaders of increasingly diverse workforces, they will need to understand their employees’ perspectives on national debates, and how corporate decisions affect them.
“It is a shift, absolutely, mostly because all of our companies are just starting to look a lot different,” Marc said.
One way that some business schools are responding is by drawing on the social sciences, like behavioural economics or psychology. The Stanford Graduate School of Business’ ethics class — taught by two political scientists, one an expert in behaviour and the other in game theory — sounds more like a course in human nature than in finance.
A new topic this year is sexual harassment, and how to create a workplace culture in which people feel comfortable reporting it. The 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.
Next year, Fern Mandelbaum, a venture capitalist, will teach a new class to Stanford MBA candidates called Equity by Design: Building Diverse and Inclusive Organisations.
“It’s not just how the CEO of Uber was treating women,” Mandelbaum said. “The bias is throughout the system.”
Carnegie Mellon started its leadership department after hearing from alumni that it needed more training related to skills like empathy and communication. This fall, Meyer’s students studied a contentious memo written by a Google engineer, who was then fired, arguing that women were less suited to engineering than men.
“We said, ‘This is not just a gender issue, it’s a business issue,’” Meyer said. “It has marketing implications, legal implications, HR implications.”
Gender is an issue that students are particularly interested in, according to the FortE Foundation, which works with business schools to help more women advance into leadership roles. The foundation has developed a tool kit for men, with tips like choosing a name such as “ally” or “liaison” to denote a sense of partnership, or using role-playing scenarios about sensitive situations, like what to do if a colleague says, “She only got the promotion because she’s a woman.”
Two dozen schools have started groups based on the program, including groups called the Manbassadors, for men committed to gender equity in business, at the business schools at Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard.
The goal is “making sure that as men we’re very aware of some of the privileges we’re afforded simply because of gender,” said Alen Amini, a third-year student at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and a founder of its Manbassadors group.
As previously taboo subjects enter the classroom debate, students and professors are still adjusting.
“It can get pretty controversial,” said Aaron Chatterji, an associate professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business who is starting a class about activism among chief executives. “I’ve never taught a class where I’ve had students talking about gay rights or drug addiction.”
At Vanderbilt, Vogus solicited ideas from the class about how Uber might change its ways. One student suggested hiring fewer star engineers and more team players. Another proposed hiring a woman to lead human resources.
“We have a CE-bro culture in the technology sector today, but we’ve had CE-bros throughout time,” said a student, April Hughes. “Enron was an example of this. All the guys there thought they were smarter than everyone else.”
The class turned testy, however, as students debated whether Uber’s hard-charging culture might have been an asset.
“Some of that brashness was actually critical to the company being successful,” said one student, Andrew Bininger.
When the Uber conversation turned to gender and power dynamics, a female student suggested that women in the Vanderbilt MBA programme had to work harder than their male counterparts.
“The women who do make it to business school are all super strong personalities, whereas the men here can float through without being the cream of the crop,” Natalie Copley said, adding of the women in the class: “They’re not meek little timid things.”
That drew jeers from the men in the group, and Vogus changed the subject.