Business as usual at Wilfrid Laurier

There must be greater emphasis on the importance of ethics for Laurier’s ‘best business school’

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have the right to do and what is right to do” – Potter Stewart, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court.

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon the world” – Albert Camus, French philosopher.

“Canada’s Best Business School” – posters all over campus.

As we watch the progress of the new business building from the outside at Wilfrid Laurier University, we would do well to explore the interior — not the colours of the walls, but the goals of the education offered therein. Specifically, university stakeholders should be asking: will there be an increased focus on business ethics in our expanded school of business and economics, or will it be business — practically ethics-free — as usual?

A limited amount of courses focuses on ethical practices, yet none are mandatory. It is touched on in other courses, but not an entire focus in the program.

There are probably very good justifications for this fact, but a sorry fact it remains and one that deserves to be corrected. A professor of economics can say, “I am not a theologian or a philosopher; I cannot teach ethics.” Others may say, “teaching ethics places us precariously close to teaching religion; it’s too risky or politically incorrect.” To which I say: the ethics-free alternative is far worse. We need to find a way.

My mentor, Rabbi Menachem Schneersohn of sainted memory, would often say that “all educational efforts are basically meaningless unless built on the solid foundation of good character.”

Laurier has proven to be uniquely aware of this, as the ethos of our school revolves around much more than grades alone. We can practice what we preach and lead the way for other schools to follow. Imagine an institute within the SBE devoted to the academic research and instruction of business ethics and programs that emphasize and reward ethical behaviour in the business world.

The Global Innovation Exchange building can and should be about more than just increasing shareholder value, making money — it can and should be about finding ethical best practices that work in the real world and injecting them into the business leaders of tomorrow.

This would also position Laurier as a national voice on this vital topic, and who knows, maybe we can even teach our neighbours to the south a thing or two about it.

Laurier and the school of business and economics cannot honestly aim to be Canada’s best business school without placing business ethics on an equal pedestal to co-op, New Venture and the like.

In my informal discussions with students on the topic, I have generally seen a deep curiosity on their part to explore relevant issues such as the ethics of headhunting, advertising, compensation, workers’ rights and much more.

They relish the intellectual challenge and are sincerely interested in understanding how to ethically resolve these problems. Each of these issues contains potential ethical minefields and without a framework to work through the ethical challenges, people are likely to ignore them outright.

Ethical questions arise every single day in every business and students would respond very well to an ethics institute in the SBE.

One final, admittedly biased, point: the fundamental values of our society’s morality are derived largely from the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish tradition. If we have been well served by borrowing morals about murder, theft and others from those sources, we ought to ask what they have to say about the morals of money. Our future business leaders need to be people who have succeeded financially without sacrificing their souls, and it is incumbent upon the academy to wholeheartedly embrace the challenge of teaching them how.

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