ALBERT EINSTEIN ONCE said, "Education is not the learning of facts, but the training
of minds to think." Einstein's statement has never been truer than it is today, when
students must absorb the growing number of controversial issues filling the business
press. Here are just a few stories that made headlines over the last year:
- The CEOs of Texas Instruments and Intel lost their jobs after their personal
behavior violated their companies' codes of conduct.
- Facebook fell under scrutiny for its inability to safeguard user data privacy.
- Starbucks closed its stores to provide diversity and inclusion training to all
employees in response to allegations of racial bias.
- The National Football League dealt with debate over its players kneeling
during America's national anthem, raising discussion about employee freedom of
expression, social issues, and advertisers' reluctance to associate with controversy.
- Celebrities were shunned or arrested for sexual harassment and assault.
- Scandals even reached higher education, in the form of student academic integrity
scandals; faculty research fabrication and fraud; and the sudden dismissal,
resignation, or arrest of campus administrators.
Students freely talk about these incidents in hallways, dormitories, and cafeterias;
but when they bring them up in the classroom, faculty often become evasive
or offer only fiat-footed responses. It's as if there's a controversy about addressing
controversy. But if faculty avoid tackling such topics, they cannot expect students
to have the moral fortitude to act when faced with ethical challenges at work.
How can administrators encourage faculty to address controversial topics in
their classrooms? They can start by examining the problem to better understand the existing barriers and challenges
their faculty face. They can make clear
that when faculty discuss controversial
issues in the classroom, they help students
develop critical thinking, ethical
decision making, and leadership skills.
Most important, they must provide
faculty with frameworks, resources, and
training to help them lead difficult classroom
discussions effectively. With this
support, faculty and students will be empowered
to promote cultures of respect,
dignity, and intellectual dialogue—factors
crucial to healthy debate.
CONNECTING TO THE MISSION
Even the most innovative faculty might
be reluctant to discuss controversial
topics—perhaps they lack the confidence
to delve into unresolved topics, such
as breaking news or ongoing litigation,
instead preferring to teach from a structured
syllabus. But once the barriers are
well understood, administrators can
help their faculty overcome them.
For example, administrators can
communicate how classroom debate ties
to the institution's mission. Likewise,
AACSB International's accreditation
standards emphasize the importance
of developing ethical business leaders.
Teaching students to respond to controversy
is a big part of that objective.
More important, faculty who embrace
controversy in their teaching
will be fulfilling the grand purpose of
business education, which is to prepare
students for leadership roles. The professors
who are most valued and remembered are those who guide students in
how to think, not those who dogmatically
impose on them what to think.
It is essential for business schools to
provide resources that guide faculty on
how to best and most consistently lead
controversial discussions. At some institutions,
teaching and learning institutes
host web sites that provide guidelines,
motivation, and warnings. (See "Guidance
for Teachers" below.) Schools also
can deliver workshops or use frameworks
provided by professional firms.
There are many ways faculty can
inspire insightful classroom debates:
Use case studies. Case studies
present neutral scenarios that are disconnected
from students' daily lives. As
a result, any arguments among students
will be less intense, giving students
more space to express dissenting points
of view without fear. For example, at the
Villanova University School of Business
in Pennsylvania, executive MBAs debate
issues such as executive compensation
and living wage via cases centered on
recent company proxies, while MBA
students in our Social Enterprise
Consulting Practicum apply strategic
and ethical theories to challenges facing
local nonprofit organizations.
Turn to online resources. Professors
can tap tools online that provide
common readings, timely video content,
expert perspectives, and questions for
students to consider. (See the sidebar below "Suggestions
for Smarter Conversations.")
Present ethical reasoning models.
Students often are aware of controversies
in news but lack the skill to justify their positions on those issues. By
presenting ethics models—such as Kohlberg's
theory of moral reasoning—faculty
can guide students to go beyond what
is wrong in an issue to explore what
could go right with sound decisions.