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In an era of increasing global commerce, business has the resources and reach to play a crucial role in determining the course of human rights and progress, says Judith Samuelson, executive director of the Business and Society Program at the Aspen Institute. How corporations choose to change the world depends on their leaders, many of them MBA graduates. Here, Samuelson makes the case for reshaping business education for the 21st century to ensure that CEOs look beyond the financial bottom line.
In the past, you have described business as a “social force.” What do you mean?
Business is to the modern era what the church was to the Middle Ages. It is the most powerful institution of our age. After a decade and more of examples of excess and malfeasance, public trust in business is low, but global corporations command extraordinary resources and distribution systems, talent and problem-solving skills that we need to address complex problems. Whether we like it or not, we don't have global governance, but we do have global companies, and the behavior of multinationals is likely to shape the norms and help define what rights are respected.
A new era of business education
After World War II, the G.I. Bill opened higher education to more Americans than ever before, just as the economy and business began to be seen as the keys to strengthening U.S. democracy. MBA enrollment quickly grew, but it soon became apparent that the standards in business education were not very rigorous. In 1959 two reports—the Ford Foundation’s “Higher Education for Business” by the economists Robert A. Gordon and James E. Howell and the Carnegie Corporation’s “The Education of American Businessmen” by Frank Pierson—would recommend using social science research as a way to raise standards and set the course for global business culture for the next 50 years.
The rise of the MBA culture
Following the publication of those two reports, philanthropy and higher education institutions worked together to strengthen the academic standards of business education. And just in time: In the decades ahead, the number of MBA degrees exploded, making business graduates both highly specialized and widely inﬂuential. Today, business degrees account for about 25 percent of all graduate degrees in the United States. But over time, the growing emphasis on economic equations and bottom-line calculations has distanced business people from understanding the needs and concerns of the communities on the ground, especially those without signiﬁcant assets or economic power.
Putting values at the heart of business
Today, philanthropy supports leaders and organizations working to provide future business leaders with a deeper understanding of the connection between business and the public good. One of the leading institutions in this area is the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. Bringing together business and education leaders at workshops, conferences and online, the institute offers high-level strategies and principles as well as practical tools for building a new model for business.
A toolbox for forward-thinking B-schools
The Aspen Institute’s CasePlace.org site, for example, features case studies, teaching modules and multimedia content that can help faculty bring environmental, social and ethical issues into their lessons on business and management. For 10 years, its Beyond Grey Pinstripes global survey researched and tracked how well business schools offered MBA students coursework that would prepare them for social and environmental stewardship. These and other efforts have helped to reshape business education: According to one study by the institute, between 2001 and 2011 the percentage of MBA programs that require students to take courses dedicated to business and society issues increased from 34 to 79 percent.How schools measure up: Preparing students for social and environmental stewardship