New column: Thunderbird MBAs take the Oath

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My column for this week is online. Except it’s not really my column—it’s a part of the cover package on The Future of Work. I’d written it as a my regular one-page column, then was informed at the last minute that I needed to cut it by 20% and add a couple of sentences about, you know, the future of work. (If I worked for Dow Jones, by the way, I wouldn’t be allowed to tell you this.) It was a little bit alarming how little these changes seemed to harm the piece, but because I don’t work at Dow Jones I figured I’d share the original  column below the break.

A note about Thomas Rhoden, the student who opposed the Thunderbird Oath and whose name is in the column below but not in the magazine. I took his name out of the magazine piece not for reasons of space (although I guess it helped on that front), but because at the last minute I decided it was pretty unfair to tar Rhoden with two snotty quotes from a three-page essay (five if you count cover page and footnotes). I’ve been communicating with Rhoden by e-mail, and he seems like a fine young man. When I first heard about him, I figured he was on some I’m-gonna-make-a-zillion-bucks-so-get-out-of-my-way kick. But no—he writes in his essay that he doesn’t disagree with anything in the oath, he’s just thinks it’s a bogus approach to instilling values in business students. And guess what high-powered job he took after getting his MBA? He’s doing administrative work with a network of refugee camps on the border of Burma and Thailand.

There’s one other thing I should mention. Thunderbird President Angel Cabrera and I are both members of a (non-)secret society (not) bent on world domination called the Young Global Leaders of the World Economic Forum. Some of the development of the Thunderbird oath transpired under the auspices of that group and a predecessor called the Global Leaders of Tomorrow (of which I was not a member). I haven’t had anything to do with it, though. Anyway, the column:

It’s commencement day for the Thunderbird School of Global Management, a highly regarded if off-the-beaten-track business school housed on a former military base (Thunderbird Field) in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, Ariz. The 279 graduates have gathered on a May afternoon in the Glendale Conference and Media Center, a few miles from campus and next door to the shiny new Arizona Cardinals football stadium. About a third of the way through the ceremony, after the presentation of the flags of 35 nations and a speech by school President Angel Cabrera, something unusual happens:

“As a Thunderbird and a global citizen, I promise,” Cabrera begins. The graduates repeat after him, and then the recitation continues:

I will strive to act with honesty and integrity,

I will respect the rights and dignity of all people,

I will strive to create sustainable prosperity worldwide,

I will oppose all forms of corruption and exploitation and

I will take responsibility for my actions.

As I hold true to these principles, it is my hope that I may enjoy an honorable reputation and peace of conscience.

This is the Thunderbird Oath of Honor, the unlikely leading edge of an assault on business-as-usual at business schools. Thunderbird President Cabrera and his fellow rebels contend that B-schools have become ethical wastelands whose failings helped foment the accounting scandals at Enron and elsewhere earlier this decade and the Wall Street collapse of the past year. That last bit may be a stretch, but it’s telling that even those who defend B-schools don’t claim that they’re moral beacons. Purdue business school dean Richard Cosier, who debated Cabrera in late April at the annual convention of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the main B-school trade group, attributes the crisis to “personal greed” and too much debt. “Personal greed reflects personal values,” Cosier asserts when I catch him on the phone a few days after the debate, “and you can’t blame business schools for determining personal value systems.”

There was a time, though, in the first half of the 20th century, when business schools did see themselves as responsible for instilling values and norms. They aimed to establish a profession of management that took its cues from medicine and the law. That approach weakened through the decades and collapsed during the economic turmoil of the 1970s, says Rakesh Khurana, a Harvard Business School professor whose 2007 history From Higher Aims to Hired Hands chronicles the shift. Khurana—a close ally of Thunderbird’s Cabrera—argues that since then business schools have become super trade schools focused solely on securing the highest-paying jobs for their graduates. “If you wonder why CEOs spend so much time thinking about whether their bathrooms are up to par,” Khurana says, “look at the business schools they went to.”

Khurana was a keynote speaker at the April AACSB convention, and he doesn’t think his message went over well: “Two hours of making 1,200 people squirm in their seats,” is how he describes it. It’s not just business educators who squirm at the idea of management as a profession. When I mention it to a lawyer friend, he scoffs, “It doesn’t work unless you have a professional exam, a licensing board and exposure to malpractice.”

Cabrera and Khurana agree. “The biggest question is—and we don’t know the answer—how are we going to institutionalize this?” Cabrera says. One step has been the United Nations-sponsored Principles for Responsible Management Education (key buzzwords: “responsible” and “sustainable”), endorsed by 229 business schools worldwide—including Thunderbird but not any of the biggest-name U.S. schools.

Then there’s the Thunderbird Oath. Cabrera, a Spaniard with a Ph.D in psychology from Georgia Tech, experimented with a similar oath in his previous job as dean of Instituto de Empresa, a business school in Madrid. But he imposed it from above, and it was abandoned after he left in 2004. In hopes of making the concept stick at Thunderbird, Cabrera charged students with composing the oath and persuading the faculty and board of directors to approve it. Applicants to Thunderbird must write an essay discussing the oath, and students say it comes up often in classroom discussions. A few don’t love it. Student Thomas Rhoden circulated an essay this spring declaring his unwillingness to sign or recite the “insulting,” “tacky” oath. Not that it prevented him from graduating: even at Thunderbird, making ethical promises mandatory is still seen as beyond the business-school pale.