The Art of the Difficult Discussion

When we teach students to engage in respectful debate on difficult topics, we prepare them to become leaders who can communicate clearly and appreciate different points of view.
The Art of the Difficult Discussion

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.


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.