OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Study: Business Students Not Less Ethical than Other Students

06/04/2008

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study by Oregon State University researchers finds that business school students do not differ from other students in terms of personal moral philosophies – a finding that contradicts some widely held assumptions about business students and business education.

Donald Neubaum, Jack Drexler and Erik Larson of Oregon State University, along with co-authors Mark Pagell of York University and Frances McKee-Ryan of University of Nevada-Reno, surveyed 1,080 business and non-business students. The study will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Academy of Management Learning and Education Journal.

According to lead author Neubaum, the goal was to test the claim held by many critics of business education that financial theories and a “profits-first” attitude within business school curriculum is responsible for ethical scandals in companies such as Enron.

“How a business school education affects the personal moral philosophies and attitudes on profit and sustainability of students has been a subject of much debate in and out of business schools in recent years,” Neubaum said. “While some prior research has examined the ethical attitudes of business and non-business students, no study has compared the moral philosophies of business and non-business students who are at different points in their college careers.

“In effect,” Neubaum said, “we can see if and how exposure to business and non-business education might influence students’ moral philosophies over time.”

To test whether amoral or profits-focused students self-select into business degree programs, the researchers proposed that freshmen business students would be more profit-driven and less idealist, and more strongly believe in “situational ethics” than non-business freshmen. Based on their results, they found no evidence that business freshman were any different from non-business freshmen on these dimensions.

“Freshmen business students’ scores on relativism and idealism mirrored those of their non-business counterparts, as did their scores on their attitudes on profits and sustainability,” Neubaum said. “Thus, we found no evidence students interested in business are somehow “pre-ordained” to commit ethical violations due to their moral philosophies.”

The next test was to find out how business freshmen compared to seniors in the business program. Neubaum said the goal was to see if exposure to business school curriculum was associated with a change in personal moral philosophies or profit mentalities. Again, they found no statistical difference between the two groups.

“If, as many critics charge, business school theories and education are responsible for a negative effect on moral philosophies, or make business students more profit-driven, then we should have found a difference between the freshmen and the seniors,” Neubaum said.

In fact, the only area that the researchers found there to be a difference between business freshmen and seniors was when they measured attitudes on profits and sustainability. But what they found was the opposite of widely held notions.

Neubaum said senior business majors were more likely than their freshman counterparts to believe that considering environmental and social indicators as part of a firm’s performance is the right thing to do. Seniors were also more likely than freshmen to report they will take a company’s environmental and social performance into account when seeking employment opportunities.

And after three or four years of exposure to business school curriculum, students reported to be less profit-driven and to be more socially and environmentally conscious.

Neubaum said while not complete, he believes the study shows that further research is needed before blaming business school education for corporate scandals and ethics violations. He also said more research, including studies on MBA students and recent business school graduates working in the business world, is required.

“While it may be easy and convenient to blame business schools and educators for corporate corruption and ethical scandals, we don’t believe such arguments are based on the body of empirical research we found,” he said.

“We certainly don’t want to suggest that ethical training in business schools is not important, because it is,” Neubaum said. “But we do believe the results of our study show that this blame might be misplaced and we fear it might misdirect the attention of educators who truly do want to improve the consciousness of their students and corporate America.”