An assistant professor at the Harvard Business School, which is sometimes dubbed "the West Point of Capitalism," discredits the popular notion that experience is the best teacher of ethics. She recently established a private institute for management ethics -- kind of a "Remedial Morality 101" for Fortune 500 execs.

At the Yale School of Organization and Management, a young professor conducts a class exercise he calls "The Front Page Test." He requires students to issue memos responding to morally sticky business problems. A month later, when their memories of the memos have faded, he brings in a hardnosed reporter from The New York Post to rattle their convictions.

While most of the nation's top-rated graduate schools of business today include ethics in their curricula, that wasn't always the case. Increased attention to morality in business issues by MBA academicians seems to be a direct response to criticism in recent years that business ethics has become an oxymoron. Certainly, if actions speak louder than words -- and in ethics they do -- weekly disclosures from Wall Street to Washington suggest consumptive greed and high-level deceit are quickly becoming business as usual.

But one can't help wondering whether morality can be taught any more than it can be legislated. Does ethics education produce ethical actions? Or is the MBA textbook on morality like the gag hardback published last April by William Morrow & Co. titled The Complete Book of Wall Street Ethics -- a book of blank pages?

Robert Bies believes that making ethics integral to business requires more than playing a classroom version of the boardgame Scruples. And morality isn't some homework assignment for the firebrand professor who for three years has taught a standing-room only course known simply as "Power" at the highly regarded Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. Instead, says Bies, ethics in business calls for what appears to be a contradictory correlation: humanization of bottom-line thinking.

"I don't have any grand illusions that I'm going to create potential saints out of this classroom," says Bies, 34, whose approach is anything but preachy. He says he didn't come to Kellogg to teach Sunday school classes for corporate types. "But what I think I can do is train them to ask that one question as part of the decision-making process: What are the ethical implications?"

Bies boasts his emphasis on ethics has not come "in response to Ivan Boesky and that cadre." Rather, his approach, which may be a first in business school education, dawned on him one day while strolling in Chicago's Lincoln Park. He was struck by the irony that the streets lined with rich and opulent houses are walked by so many homeless people. The recognition shook Bies from the comfortable complacency that he recognized as characteristic also of his MBA students.

"I started wondering about the impact my life was having," recalls Bies. "What am I doing as an educator?" His answer was to incorporate a hands-on and intense project on powerlessness into his power course. Taking a cue from Chicago's chronicler of American life, Studs Terkel, Bies requires his students to spend at least a week studying and getting to know "real people who are disadvantaged, poor, excluded or disinfranchised ... They actually spend time with powerless people and also try to understand the whole political landscape concerning them, going to city council meetings, interviewing city officials, finding out who was on their side and why."

Among the groups Bies students have focused on: the Chicago sanctuary movement, Hispanics, pregnant teens, the mentally retarded, and people suffering from AIDS. "We're talking about future Goldman Sachs executives in homeless shelters," explains Bies, adding that a night in a soup kitchen shows "the investment banker mentality that power isn't just position -- it's access, resource and support."

And what does it teach them about ethics? "The general MBA education reinforces the bottom-line mentality that largely sees person as widget rather than person as person," contends Bies. "Some of the Harvard professors ask, 'Are we managing our way to an economic decline?' My question is are we managing our way to moral decline? Clearly mine is not the dominant position.

"But by working with the powerless, each of these students ... begins to see himself as a person in relation to the world. Besides being a {corporate} manager, or an investment banker, they see themselves as human beings in a broader social system. And my hope is that they will begin to see that their actions have a moral dimension. These people will make decisions that affect lives of other people."

Bies argues that to make ethics a separate class in a business school curriculum isn't the answer. "You need to integrate it into the basics," he says. "Once you separate it from everyday managerial decision-making, it is a lost cause, something to worry about on Sundays, something to worry about over the dinner table. If these students are only a little more sensitive to the ethical issues every day, we're better off."

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