Teaching Today

Talking Trump in the Classroom

In today's political environment, how can professors challenge students to make sense of a changing world without imposing their own value-based judgments on classroom discussions? Jo-Ellen Pozner suggests some approaches.

February 21, 2017
 
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I have studied organizational misconduct, and what happens to people at the top of organizations engaging in wrongdoing, for the past 15 years. I comment in the media regularly, speaking to print, radio and television news sources about corporate malfeasance and laxity in corporate governance. I feel no qualms about giving my opinions on topics ranging from the Volkswagen emissions-cheating program to David Boies’s conflict of interest at Theranos to the University of California’s inadequate response to a spate of sexual harassment claims on campus.

So why do I find it so difficult to talk to my students about ethical issues brought up in the presidential campaign, and by executive orders enacted during the first weeks of the Trump administration?

I teach classes on ethics and organizational behavior to students in the M.B.A., master of supply chain management and master of information systems programs at Santa Clara University. SCU is a Jesuit university, part of a religious order dedicating to educating those at the margins of society. We sit in the heart of Silicon Valley, home to Intel, Avaya, Applied Materials and other big names in the tech world.

Both our mission and our location contribute to my keen feeling of responsibility to send my students out into the world with a strong moral compass. I run them through 20-odd class sessions designed to give them an analytical framework for making value-consistent decisions and to practice making ethical judgments in unfamiliar situations. I tell them that I am training them to make “good decisions,” by which I mean thoughtful, intentional decisions about what is right according to their own value systems. I tell them that they are fully formed adults with their own moral compasses, and that it is not my job to tell them what to think but rather how to think and reframe everyday dilemmas as involving ethical compromises.

I do not think many ethical dilemmas are more important than those the Trump administration has imposed upon us. The executive order halting entry from predominantly Muslim countries was an example. Why were none of the countries where Trump has business interests on the list of banned countries? Why do we not yet know the extent of the Trump Organization’s foreign debt, business holdings and consequent conflicts of interest? What does it mean to have inexperienced climate deniers and multinational oil company executives running our environmental and diplomatic agencies? Those are ethical issues that affect not only us but also people around the world -- and for generations to come.

And yet, as an academic trained not to make normative prescriptions, talking about politics feels inappropriate to me. I have felt it difficult to separate my own political views from the issues that underlie them. Imposing my own value-based judgments on a classroom discussion is diametrically opposed to my teaching approach; I tell my classes that I save my moralizing and transmission of values for my own young children, that the content of my students’ value systems is not my affair. And so I have shied away from engaging with the issues we currently confront in my courses.

Recently, however, it has become abundantly clear to me that my approach has been misguided. As educators, it is our responsibility to speak up for things that we find troubling. It is impossible to send students out into today’s working world ready to blow the whistle on unethical behavior in the workplace but unprepared to analyze, debate and act upon their own moral judgments about far-reaching, paradigm-shifting government policy.

So since the end of January, my classes have been tackling the Trump administration’s decisions head-on. Having consulted with colleagues about their approaches, I came up with the following plan of attack with the goal not of moralizing and criticizing, but rather of challenging my students to use our classroom tools to refine their own political judgments and make sense of a changing world. My efforts will include:

  • Asking students to describe their feelings about recent developments and to compare those feelings to the value systems they have already reported. Where are the inconsistencies? What compromises fuel their discomfort? This approach allows students to focus on their own moral judgment and gets the instructor out of the way of their own processing. Our goal should be not to convince students of what is right but to push them to decide for themselves what is right by confronting their own values.
  • Challenging students to apply ethical decision-making frameworks to the administration’s actions. Conducting a full stakeholder analysis, for example, might help students clarify the trade-offs they are willing to make and those they cannot tolerate. Similarly, subjecting the executive branch’s actions to the decision rules provided by Aristotle, Kant and Mill would test the moral soundness of its actions.
  • Encouraging students to take the idea that, although we share a lot of values in common, everybody prioritizes those values differently. Discussing what we can infer about other people’s values from their public statements and actions -- for example, that they place perceived security over procedural justice -- helps students understand others’ perspectives and better appreciate what drives differences in opinion. That is consistent with my assertion that most people want to think about themselves as good most of the time, so we should assume that they are trying to make “good,” value-consistent decisions most of the time.
  • Suggesting that students bring in newspaper articles about current events and debating different viewpoints, drawing on class material. That not only encourages broad thinking but also gives students experience in defining their own perspectives and discussing them in an analytical way.
  • Tying back regularly scheduled classroom discussions to events in the news. In the case of my ethics class, that is easy. We are set to cover diversity in the workplace, whistle-blowing, conflicts of interest and the responsibility of business to the global community in the next several weeks. In my organizational behavior class, the conversation may come in discussions of culture, motivation and leadership style.

Perhaps my most important component of my plan is simply not shying away from the topic. I regularly encourage students to lean into difficult conversations, which produce the greatest learning, growth and progress in organizational settings. The same is true in the public square as well as in the classroom.

I have avoided doing so for fear of letting my own politics and emotions get in the way of an “academic approach.” But as my colleague Emily Heaphy, who teaches management at the University of Rhode Island, put it, “we do a disservice to ourselves and our students to normalize or pretend that we are above having opinions about political, social and organizational issues of enormous importance.” We don’t have to pretend not to have an opinion; we simply need to be prepared to subject it to the same ethical analysis we ask of our students. As educators, it is our responsibility to send students into the world well equipped to behave ethically. I plan to make it a regular component of my classroom. I owe that to my conscience, to my students and to society.

Bio

Jo-Ellen Pozner is an assistant professor of management at Santa Clara University Leavey School of Business.

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