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Reinventing business education

Catholic University of America launches new School of Business and Economics . . .

Whenever financial scandals make the news, business schools typically respond by adding more ethics courses to the curriculum.

But a new School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America is taking a different approach to instilling ethics into future business leaders by seeking to integrate morality, virtue and service into every aspect of its teaching and research.

Rethinking ethics

Dr. Andrew Abela

Dr. Andrew Abela

“It’s more than adding courses or chapters in textbooks,” said Andrew Abela, who was named dean of the school on Jan. 18, “but making sure that when you learn finance, you learn how to do finance well. That means being both effective and ethical.”

A member of Legatus’ Northern Virginia Chapter, Abela said the challenge in creating such a program is that business disciplines traditionally have been designed to be ethically neutral. Added Catholic University President John Garvey: “It’s a popular and common way of thinking about business problems that we can separate our deliberations about business issues from our moral deliberations, that business education will give you the tools to be successful at finance, marketing, accounting, whatever, and you employ that in service to whatever your ideals happen to be.”

Nonetheless, he continued, business is inextricably intertwined with moral questions. For example, he said, the current debt crisis is tied to our duties to the aged and future generations, and the last financial crisis dealt with disclosure, honesty and self-restraint.

“To think back to old-fashioned terms,” Garvey explained, “if you list the capital sins we were taught to recite as children in our catechism  class, the majority deal with these kinds of problems: covetousness, envy, gluttony, lust for goods as well as people. The virtues we want to teach people in the marketplace are a welcome antidote for that.”

Since the university announced on Jan. 8 that it was turning its existing business and economics department into a school, Garvey  said he has been struck by how new and surprising people find the idea of incorporating ethics and morality into a business program.

John Garvey

John Garvey

“I wish that there were more examples of this kind of full integration of ethical and moral thought in business and professional schools, but it’s relatively unusual,” Garvey said.

Neil Watson, a student in the school’s Master of Science in Business Analysis program, said he was drawn to Catholic University precisely because of the way the business school integrates faith, virtues, morals and ethics into every course.

“It wasn’t going to be a one-time course where I signed a paper saying, ‘I promise to be an ethical business person.’” Instead, he said, in every class, he is learning not just finance and accounting, for example, but how to do them for the purpose of doing good.

“It’s one thing to be a good business person and another to be a good business person doing good,” he explained.

Business and economics

Watson said the new business school’s approach is especially important for his generation, which has seen business portrayed as separate from a person’s spiritual life.

“We’ve seen the results and harm that are done to society if you try to practice business that way,” he explained. “We grew up with Enron and the financial crisis with AIG because it became all about money. My generation in particular is hungering for that integration.”

Although Abela believes there is a demand for business programs like Catholic University’s, he said most students searching for a business school might not be looking specifically for a virtues-based approach. However, when they learn about it, they say that is what they want.

Catholic University’s school also differs from other business programs around the country in that it combines business and economics, two disciplines Abela said are closely related. “We realize that the project of reinventing the theory of business so that it can have morality integrated into it also needs a reinvention of economics.”

As plans to expand the former department into a school became known over the last few years, CUA’s School of Business and Economics has attracted new students and faculty members.

Undergraduate enrollment has gone from 300 three years ago to 421 — in addition to 36 graduate students. Although no enrollment target has been set, Abela said applications for the next academic year are already up significantly.

Over the last five years, the full-time faculty has doubled in size to 14, with another 50 teaching part-time. The school plans to hire three more faculty members for the next academic year.

Andreas Widmer

Andreas Widmer

Among recent additions to the faculty are Andreas Widmer, a CEO and former member of the Vatican Swiss Guard who is serving as director of entrepreneurship programs; Dr. Frederic Sautet, a noted French economist who will be a visiting professor of entrepreneurship; and Dr. Ava Cas, a development economist who is assistant professor of economics.

Besides undergraduate degrees in accounting, economics, finance, international business, international economics and finance, management, and marketing, the new school offers graduate degrees in accounting, business analysis, and integral economic development management.

The one-year business analysis program is designed mainly for liberal arts students without a business background and employs an advisory board whose members provide one-on-one mentorships  to students. The integral economic development program is for students who want to work in a nongovernmental organization and is based on the understanding that economic development cannot occur unless the core institutions of society are strong.

Legatus connections

Abela said an MBA program is a possibility for the future, but with the current glut of MBAs in the U.S., there is a declining demand. “We will eventually do one,” he said, “but when we do, it will be something distinctive.”

In its quest to instill Catholic values in the business leaders of the future, the school has also employed Legates as speakers and mentors. The advisory board of the master’s program in business analysis is made up of many Legates from the Northern Virginia and Seattle chapters. Other members have visited the school as guest speakers.

“We always welcome more,” Abela said. “Our students love meeting successful Catholic business people. We want to show them examples of good, upstanding moral leaders who are also successful.”

Asked whether ethical business people are more likely to succeed, Abela was unequivocal.

“In the long term — and most Legates know this — if you treat people with respect, you will have a more sustainable and successful business over the long term. There’s no guarantee that by being moral, you will be successful. There are all sorts of temptations, but if you are trustworthy, chances are you will be more successful.”

JUDY ROBERTS is Legatus magazine’s staff writer.