Rotten Apples or Rotten Teaching?
- by Peter Cohan
As a Wharton alumnus who is proud of its reputation for excellence, I would like to use this forum to bring up a disquieting truth: A handful of financially successful graduates of prominent business schools in the United States have gotten into serious legal trouble.
Top business schools hunger to educate students with leadership potential—hoping that their subsequent career success will reflect well on the school. But what if some of those high-potential students enter a business school with a loose sense of ethics? Can the school offer courses that raise their students’ ethical standards so they won’t transgress years after graduation?
Or is it impossible to turn a bad apple into a good one through schooling? And if that is true, should the business school be more aggressive in screening out bad apples during the application process?
It does not require enormous powers of recall to bring to mind examples of prominent business school alumni who have reached the pinnacle of economic success and been honored by their schools—only to stumble into enormous legal problems.
To understand whether these business schools bear some responsibility for these cases, let’s examine the idea of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias—one of many irrational decision-making processes identified by behavioral economists—is filtering out facts that do not reinforce the decision-maker’s view of reality.
The reason I bring up confirmation bias is that I believe that many reading this article may be applying confirmation bias to dismiss the significance of recent examples of shamed business people/alumni. That’s because I would guess that most prominent business school faculty, administrators, students and alumni consider themselves to be ethical people who do not condone the behavior that led to their peers’ legal troubles.
The actions of these alumni are not consistent with our self-perception, so we are likely to dismiss their significance.
One of my Wharton professors who had also taught one of Wharton’s most notorious alumni told me that he thought when he met this alumnus that he would either become extremely wealthy or go to jail. It turns out the alumnus did both. I wish I had asked what that alum in class did that made my professor think that he might go to jail—and whether the admissions department could have picked out that trait before accepting him.
Perhaps research has been done that proves ethics courses can turn an unethical person into an ethical one. If so, I would encourage business schools to make sure that all their students take those courses.
If that research does not exist, it is worth considering whether people like the prominent alum that my professor taught might exhibit traits that could be identified during the admissions process.
If such traits exist, I would imagine that with all the intellectual horsepower in those schools, they can and should devise a way to keep talented but ethically challenged students from gaining admission to prevent them from besmirching a school’s reputation.