Inspector’s Page: Who is to blame?

There is a debate again regarding business schools and what kind of students we educate. Recently in Dagens Nyheter, Mikael Holmqvist suggested that, primarily, business schools carry a significant burden of responsibility for, for example, the “Panama scandal”. According to Holmqvist, business schools foster students into a financial elite who may well obey laws but, occasionally, can develop a “flexible attitude” towards laws and moral in the pursuit of self-interest. Last year, Bo Rothstein suggested that the Royal Academy of Science put the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences on moratorium while it was investigated to what extent the subject of economics was connected to corruption. Rothstein was referring to empirical studies claiming that students of economics, unlike other subjects, are more prone to corruption.

These arguments have been responded to, by scholars from within and outside the subject area, and although the debate is much needed, few of the involved actually endeavoured to scrutinise the curricula at for instance business administration programmes and courses. And anyone who does will soon find the concept of “sustainability” written all over it. Over, say, the last decade, sustainability has been the response of business schools to this criticism. The concept of sustainability is there partly to highlight the outskirts of legal systems where moral and ethics become more important means of guidance of corporate behaviour.

However, the inclusion of sustainability presents us with at least two challenges: first, whether the concept of sustainability actually addresses the problem with morals, ethics and corruption, or whether it is just a neo-liberal excuse to carry on like we’ve always done. Secondly, and more practically we, who teach business administration, need to work out what we mean by sustainability and how we teach it. Here, we suffer from a less-than-robust frame of reference, where we can easily relate to law, but find it more complicated to be governed by moral and ethics.

This will take time as, historically, business administration perhaps hasn’t taken ethics and morals very seriously, and also failed to relate it to the causes and consequences of corporate profit. That’s why, when you look at our curricula, you’ll find what comes across as an unstructured approach to sustainability, with overlaps and gaps, and lack of a clear progression over time. But one thing we are pretty good at, is a multifaceted take on sustainability. You’ll find different takes on it in each of the subject areas, and you will, for sure, find that we take a critical approach to the concept as well: Is sustainability a corporate excuse? Is it another way of domesticating opportunism? Greenwashing? How can sustainability create value? What is value? And so on. There is tons to do to improve, but anyone studying our curricula for sure cannot say we’re not working on it. We concluded long ago that organisations exist thanks to their ability to balance the need for legitimacy with the need for entrepreneurship. As we finally realised that legitimacy doesn’t equal law, we need to rethink. This is a work in progress.

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