The Emerging Corporate Conscience

Training MBAs to Make Socially Responsible Business Decisions

Columbia Business School classes are preparing students to lead in a world that increasingly demands socially responsible business decisions.
Columbia Business School classes are preparing students to lead in a world that increasingly demands socially responsible business decisions.
Topics
Social Impact, Economics & Policy, Leadership
Author
Laurie B. Davis
Published

As Americans confront partisan politics, racial injustice, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and other critical issues at the center of a palpable divide in the United States, the role of business in society is being scrutinized—by external critics and from within companies. Across industries, business leaders are grappling with how best to respond to issues that impact individuals, communities, democracy, and the environment.

To prepare students to lead in a world that increasingly demands socially responsible business decisions, Columbia Business School professors designed two courses: Business and Society: Reconciling Shareholder and Stakeholder Interests, and Bridging the American Divides.

View from Within

The subject of business and society is top of mind for many asset managers, CEOs, and young people hoping to work for socially conscious companies, says R. Glenn Hubbard, dean emeritus and the Russell L. Carson Professor of Finance and Economics, who teaches Business and Society: Reconciling Shareholder and Stakeholder Interests.

“When you talk with business leaders about what’s on their mind or what they’re worried about, it’s not so much this quarter’s numbers. It’s the slow moving social and political forces that they feel they don’t know enough about,” he says.

The Business and Society course examines the role of the corporation in society. “In contemporary language, what is the ‘purpose’ of business? For whom should the corporation be run?” Hubbard says.

Students consider issues through multiple perspectives: the evolving business organization, finance and investors, employees, corporate governance, privacy and big data, social movements, social justice, and climate change. Hubbard pairs a faculty member with an invited business leader to teach different course modules, putting forth ideas that are supported by academic research as well as practical application.

“Ultimately, we are training students to be business leaders. It’s helpful for them to hear from men and women who were in the seat, as it were, to do that,” says Hubbard.

The Spring 2022 semester course included a conversation with Lynn Forester de Rothschild, a 1980 Columbia Law School graduate who is founder and managing partner of Inclusive Capitalism, a coalition that focuses on creating long-term value for all stakeholders, from employees to the planet.

The course exposes students to alternative disciplinary approaches through modules taught by faculty members that include Omar Besbes, the Vikram S. Pandit Professor of Business, and Dan Wang, associate professor of business and co-director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise.

“You can’t really understand privacy and big data issues without understanding the operations research of someone like Omar Besbes,” says Hubbard. “Likewise, when we think about social movements, Dan Wang has spent his whole research career covering how social movements take off. If I’m a CEO, that’s a point of view I really want to know.”

Looking Outward

Where Business and Society looks within companies, Bridging the American Divides, taught by professors Todd Jick and Bruce Usher, looks outward, offering students an opportunity to explore in depth how a business practice like globalization, for example, can deepen divisions between Americans by creating consequences that ultimately marginalize many citizens. Issues the course touches on include immigration, race relations, technology and automation, religion, education, and systemic problems such as the opioid crisis.

“There’s a lot of debate about the role and responsibility of business in society, and most important, what to do about those responsibilities,” says Bruce Usher, professor of professional practice and the Elizabeth B. Strickler ’86 and Mark T. Gallogly ’86 Faculty Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise.

“Most business leaders today, maybe almost all of them, have no choice but to face these issues. I think our students recognize that’s just going to be part of their job. The days when you could duck that are over.”

Discussions about history, economic theory, and policy fill the first part of the course. In the second half, students do a study tour for four days to a middle-America city like Youngstown, Ohio, where de-industrialization created unemployment for many.

“There’s a lot of debate about the role and responsibility of business in society, and most important, what to do about those responsibilities.”

Bruce Usher, Professor of Professional Practice and the Elizabeth B. Strickler ’86 and Mark T. Gallogly ’86 Faculty Director of the Tamer Center for Social Enterprise

Once one of America’s great steel manufacturing cities, Youngstown has a long history at the intersection of business and social issues, says Usher. Its historically Democratic voting record has split 50/50 in recent elections. As steel mills began to close in the late 1970s, the town fell on hard times. “It’s had a lot of challenges ever since then,” Usher says, including the 2019 closing of a General Motors plant in nearby Lordstown, Ohio.

Students meet with manufacturers, union members, local government officials, religious leaders, and social service providers to hear their stories and opinions on business, politics, social resources, and other topics of concern. “We are not there to teach anyone about what we think are the solutions to their problems. We are there to learn,” says Usher.

Above all, students learn to listen.

“Normally, in business school, we teach students to listen to respond—essentially to win the argument, win the deal, win the business,” explains Usher. “This is completely the opposite. It’s simply, listen to understand.”

This can be especially difficult, as the views of Youngstown residents often differ so much from those of students, he says. “People may feel very strongly about those views. And it’s hard sometimes, for anyone, not just our students, to listen to a view that’s completely antithetical to their own and not respond.”

The communication can bring about unforeseen revelations, says Todd Jick, the Reuben Mark Faculty Director of Organizational Character and Leadership in the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics and senior lecturer in discipline in business. “Meeting people face-to-face makes the interactions much more visceral,” he says.

Students meet people who lost their jobs but remain in Youngstown, where the population has dropped from 250,000 to 65,000 people. The conversations help students understand how many of these citizens have come to feel marginalized, ignored, and deprived of many needed services and opportunities, says Jick. At the same time, there are examples of entrepreneurship and community efforts to rebuild and redevelop businesses and communal culture that inspire students to appreciate the fruits of individual, business, and government partnerships and progress.

A common scenario addressed by the class involves workers who have lost their jobs to outsourcing, automation, or globalization—a closed plant that moves its operations to Mexico, for example. “The question we ask is, what obligation does that business have to those workers? Is it just to pay them their official union contract severance pay? Is there something greater than that they should be offering? The impact on these communities, in the end, comes back to businesses,” says Usher.

Balancing the impact on the various stakeholders, who are all interconnected, prompts a debate students need to have with themselves, says Jick. “Part of what we’re doing is challenging them personally to answer tough questions about the obligation of business to be responsive to many different stakeholders,” he says.

Layers of Change

In 2019, the third year of Bridging the American Divides, Jick and Usher added travel to another city, Decatur, Alabama, a manufacturing town where religion is deeply embedded in the lives of most residents and often entrenched in the work world as well. The second travel location allowed them to double the number of class participants, to 52.

Every year Jick and Usher have taught the course, they receive nearly three times as many applicants as they have seats. That makes it possible to select a group of students from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, and lived experiences.

“When I say diverse, I mean on every metric possible, to bring in different opinions,” says Usher. “I’m amazed at the breadth and depth of experience they’ve had. We’ve had students who, at one point, were undocumented immigrants and had to live that life on the edge. We’ve certainly had students who have experienced extreme poverty. We’ve had families who experienced opioid abuse and death. We’ve had, of course, unemployment,” he says.

Because of those personal experiences, class discussions can get heated and very emotional. “I don’t teach any other course that has a level of emotion like the one experienced by the students in this course,” says Usher.

The course often has a lasting impact on students. Some strengthen their commitment to nonprofit work, says Jick. Some students decide to proactively engage in more nonjudgmental conversations about controversial topics—with colleagues and even family members. And still others have told him that their entire thought processes, personal values, and action plans have changed.

The student experience in the course mirrors the evolution toward a more inclusive, communicative approach to business. The new buildings on the Manhattanville campus are designed with such an approach in mind. The architectural achievements of Henry R. Kravis and David Geffen Halls enhance communication and collaborations among students and faculty and offer a welcoming invitation to guests to join in the teaching and learning. The new campus supports the Columbia community and its mission, Hubbard says.

“We’re going to rise or fall on the intellectual caliber of our faculty and the education we bring to students in the world,” says Hubbard. “The buildings make that happen more easily and more vividly.”

This article will appear as part of a “Teaching for Tomorrow” series on curricular innovations that will be featured in the next issue of the school’s alumni magazine.

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