Ethical Standards for Business Professors

17 April 2008 at 11:48 pm 2 comments

| Peter KIein |

You may have heard about the campaign to have John Yoo, author of the infamous Bush Administration torture memo, fired from his (tenured) position as professor of law at UC Berkeley. Brad DeLong has blogged a lot about this. (Here is Yoo’s response, last week, in Esquire, and here is a statement from Yoo’s dean.) Brad quoted something interesting on Tuesday from James Wimberly:

[T]he relevant fact [is] that . . . Professor Yoo is employed to teach a vocational subject, law. This isn’t a prestige issue. Particle physics, cultural studies and remedial English fall on one side of the vocational/non-vocational distinction; law, medicine, nursing, flying training and plumbing school on the other.

All teaching carries with it a minimum set of professional standards on plagiarism, harassment, favoritism and so on. Nobody has suggested John Yoo has violated these. But vocational education should also inculcate the specific ethical standards of the trade in question. It seems at least arguable that Yoo’s probable professional misconduct as legal enabler of war crimes taints his ability to train future advocates and judges. Should a flying school for airline pilots keep an instructor guilty of reckless flying in his own weekend plane? But the same conduct would be irrelevant to the employment of a professor of surgery.

Business administration, like law, is a vocational subject (despite the top-notch scholarship conducted by some business professors). What are the ethical responsibilities of a business professor? Clearly someone who engages in unethical business practices, or encourages students to do the same, is in danger. But what about borderline issues — say, an accounting professor who favors the liberal use of special purpose entities? A critic might even claim that Henry Manne’s endorsement of insider trading is akin to Yoo’s endorsement of “harsh interrogation techniques.” (I think the comparison is ludicrous, but wouldn’t be surprised to hear it from the bashers.) What about business conduct? Certainly a failed entrepreneur can be an entrepreneurship professor; indeed, the experience may even be an advantage. Is a business professor’s consulting activity a purely private matter, or should it have some bearing on his or her professorial standing?

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Alf Rehn  |  18 April 2008 at 12:33 am

    It is an interesting issue, and I think part of the problem might lie in the rather generalized assumption of “vocational”. I assume there are quite a few professors of both business and law that might as well be at a department of sociology or philosophy or psychology and so on. They may teach in vocational programmes, but does this immediately make them part of that vocation? If a philosophy professor teaches business ethics at a program for accountants, does she have to accept the ethical standards of accountants even when developing conceptual works?

    On the other hand, would one want a person who has been party to gross violations of said accounting practices (e.g. worked in Enron in a capacity that at least to the layman would imply partial guilt) teach in an accounting program? Or an accused drugdealer (a highly entrepreneurial business) teach in an entrepreneurship program?

    Difficult issues.

  • 2. REW  |  18 April 2008 at 10:54 am

    Ask the folks at the Fisher School of the Ohio State University about this dilemma. Roger Blackwell’s name (duly paid for) adorns the inn and conference center in the Fisher School complex three years after his conviction for insider trading and two years after his appeal was denied. His books on consumer behavior are landmarks; his entrepreneurship and directorships brought prestige to the school and a generous donation to the campus. I suspect the college and university would like his name expunged from the building, but they are unwilling to pay the costs.

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