HBS Students Take Ethics Oath

Over 335 students promise to act ethically in the business world

As they prepare to graduate on Thursday, many second-year Harvard Business School students have signed a pledge to act ethically in the business world.

Over 335 Harvard students had signed the pledge, known as the MBA Oath, as of yesterday afternoon, according to organizer Maxwell F. Anderson, a graduating business student. Anderson’s goal is to have 50 percent of the class—or 450 students—sign before graduation on Thursday.

Anderson and a committee of students began organizing a campaign for the oath at a meeting on May 14. Throughout the month, when business students have no class and many are traveling, the committee publicized the oath through email and word-of-mouth.

“What’s blown me away is how many people have signed up,” said Nitin Nohria, a Business School professor who co-authored a 2008 article proposing a business code of ethics. “When [Anderson] first proposed the idea, I said if 100 people sign up before graduation that would be great.”

Several students said they were drawn to taking the pledge due to their personal values and the current economic climate.

“We’re in the midst of an unprecedented financial crisis and it’s hard to place blame,” said Brian S. Elliot, a graduating student who helped publicize the oath. “But, I believe that if business leaders show a stronger commitment to ethical behavior, the avarice that has driven many business decisions in the past might be mitigated in the future.”

Anderson said the push to create an MBA Oath began in earnest after he met with Nohria and his colleague Rakesh Khurana, whose research has focused on reforming management education.

Both professors say they encouraged Anderson to promote the oath as a grassroots initiative. Nohria said the sense of student ownership has helped make the movement successful on campus.

“As often happens with our students, it took us 10 years to write this article and it took students 10 days to put it in a form where something’s happening,” he said.

However, not all reaction to the oath has been positive. On several online forums, posters have argued that the oath represents empty rhetoric.

Yet Anderson said he believes that the oath has value even without an enforcement mechanism.

“The analogy I think of is a marriage vow,” Anderson said. “You take your vow, it doesn’t mean you won’t cheat on them, but we still as a society believe in the power of those vows.”

A public pledge also allows for accountability and the organizers are considering support methods, such as ongoing education and online discussions to support oath-takers, Anderson said.

Though the organizers’ focus has been on Harvard Business School, they have been contacted by schools across the country and the globe, according to Elliot. On Tuesday afternoon, more than 100 of the 450-plus signers listed on the mbaoath.org Web site were from schools other than Harvard.

Student leaders in the Class of 2010 are currently considering how to follow up on this initiative’s success, said Patrick S. Chun ’04, incoming co-president of the HBS Student Association. From discussions with student government leaders at other elite business schools, it is clear that there is a broad desire to make ethics more visible, Chun said.

Khurana said students’ passionate feelings about ethics should start important discussions within HBS and other business schools.

“This is the students saying they want to see a very different type of ethos in business,” Khurana said. “As business educators, we need to think about what this means in a very deep and profound way.”

—Staff writer William N. White can be reached at wwhite@fas.harvard.edu.