Every business school, particularly if accredited by AACSB, has a “learning goal” concerning ethics.

Especially after 2008.

Ethics are hard to assess.

For instance, if you take the theory/philosophy route, you are assessing knowledge of ethical theories, not the ethics of the person. Hitler might have had a very firm grasp (maybe not) on ethical theory. But that doesn’t make him an ethical person.

Last year I saw the Dean of The Wharton School of Business keynote a conference. He joked that “business schools have been assessing ethics for 10 or more years.” He paused, enjoying the anticipation, and then asked, “how’s that going?” The large crowd laughed somewhat nervously, thinking of Bernie Madoff and the Wall Street meltdown. He went on to discuss his faculty’s desire to strip an alumni of their degree for gross ethical failures. He didn’t name the individual, (perhaps¬†Raj Rajartanam?) but did say that they are now in jail. The faculty did not ultimately take this step, which would have seemed more a reaction to intense media scrutiny than a judgement on an alumni’s ethics.

Should a business school be held responsible, even indirectly in the court of public opinion, for the ethical lapses of alumni ten or twenty years after graduation? Can we expect a four-year schooling experience to influence a person’s ethics? Or affinity for “lifelong learning”? Or other, abstract and complicated value?

The following learning goal definition, from Rutgers University, seems more sensible:

  • Ethics – Students graduating with a BS degree will be able to understand and evaluate ethical issues and situations to make business decisions.

How much do ethical lapses or attitudes, at 20 or 22 years of age, really indicate a person’s character?

LinkedIn is fantastically good at “suggesting” people you might know. Because LinkedIn has a far more permissive culture than Facebook, I have a good number of connections (find me here). Some are former students. LinkedIn displays your potential connections in an ever-scrolling wall (Pinterest-like) of pictures. If you scroll down, it keeps suggesting people. Kind of fun.

Yesterday LinkedIn suggested I connect with a former student who was the worst plagiarizer I ever dealt with.

Worst, because she refused to accept any responsibility for what she had done (egregious copying of another student’s work). Worst because she was caught by a colleague in the fall term, then by my in the winter term – a repeat offender. Clearly intelligent, she seemed to have been through the plagiarism process before: hang tough, deny, make a stink if need be, get your parents involved if absolutely required, promise you won’t do it again.

She was particularly disturbing to us (us, because administrators and other teachers were involved and jointly decided to fail her for the course but not put her in front of a judiciary committee or add a letter to her file) because you couldn’t help think she’d done this many times before and would do it again.

Does the university have a responsibility to act in these cases? Should a student’s actions¬†at the university contribute to assessment of ethics as a learning goal? Were our policies so lax that we (unintentionally) encouraged her to cheat?

She did graduate from the university where I taught (I only have her LinkedIn profile as evidence, so the degree is suspect, like former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson’s recent bust) with a degree in Engineering. She’s graduating this spring, with an MBA, from a small regional university in the Southeast. I didn’t click Connect. Her MBA program isn’t accredited by AACSB.