Under Oath at Thunderbird

Business school calls on students to pledge alligence to ethical standards. Will it make a difference?
September 7, 2006

Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management, a business school in Arizona, announced Tuesday that all new students would be asked to subscribe to a set of principles, aimed at strengthening ethics in the business world.

The oath, which all students will now be requested to state and sign upon graduation, reads as follows:

"As a Thunderbird and a global citizen, I promise:
I will strive to act with honesty and integrity,
I will respect the rights and dignity of all people,
I will strive to create sustainable prosperity worldwide,
I will oppose all forms of corruption and exploitation, and
I will take responsibility for my actions.
As I hold true to these principles, it is my hope that I may enjoy an honorable reputation and peace of conscience.
This pledge I make freely and upon my honor."

Officials with AACSB International, the accrediting agency for degree programs in business administration and accounting, said Wednesday that they believe the oath is the first of its kind at a business school, and that it illustrates a growing focus by administrators on emphasizing integrity among business school students.

Still, some in the business field, while applauding the idea, have asked whether prescribing to a set of words can truly have a greater affect.

“I think that the Thunderbird initiative is well-meaning and probably will not do any harm,” said Eric W. Orts, the Guardsmark Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “But a question that I would ask is whether Thunderbird is committed to enforcing the oath in some fashion. What if a student who takes the oath later quite clearly reneges on it? Any expected penalty?”

Officials with Thunderbird said there would be no penalties from the school if a student signed and reneged, or if a student didn’t sign at all.

But Greg Unruh, director of Thunderbird’s Lincoln Center for Ethics in Global Management, believes that saying the oath can change behaviors. “The real impact of the oath occurs when the members of the community see the mutual value of upholding these principles,” he said. “The truth is that unethical behavior by one Thunderbird [student] impacts the entire community.” 
Unruh said that by incorporating the oath into Thunderbird’s educational experience, “students will learn the value of fostering a culture of ethics and integrity in the organizations in which they serve.” “It is hoped that their experience at Thunderbird can serve as a model for how they can achieve this in their own companies,” he added.

Orts believes that ethics codes and oaths can make a difference in an academic context, particularly with respect to expected behavior at the education institution itself.  “West Point, for example, and some other lesser known civilian examples have strong ethics codes sworn by students -- but they work also because they are strictly enforced,” said the professor. “If you consider other professional ethics codes -- in law or medicine, for example -- the words and the oaths themselves are important and perhaps helpful.”

Jerry E. Trapnell, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer of AACSB International, was pleased with the development. “Ethics and integrity must be an important component of the educational experience at AACSB accredited institutions,” he said. “The Thunderbird oath [has] set a high standard for the students, faculty and staff.”


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