Beyond the Bottom Line
Illinois Wesleyan business professors prepare their students for
ethical dilemmas they may confront as corporate professionals.
Story by Ann Aubry
Our question today on
Who Wants to Be a Millionaire
... Explain the phrase: “Greed works.”
A) A colloquial interpretation of economist Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” theory,
B) A rationale behind high-profile corporate scandals of the last decade;
C) A line of monologue spoken by Michael Douglas in the 1987 movie Wall Street, following
the more famous, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good”;
D) A concept that business administration faculty at Illinois Wesleyan University
seek to dispel as they help students evaluate their ethical foundations and prepare
for the career world;
E) All of the above.
As Illinois Wesleyan business professors raise the issue of ethics in their classrooms,
they don’t necessarily need textbook case studies. They can bring in the business
section of any major newspaper and be guaranteed to find multiple articles revolving
around an ethical issue.
In a climate where former WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers was sentenced to a stunning 25
years in prison for accounting fraud and former Enron employees collectively lost
millions in retirement funds when the company’s fraudulent schemes collapsed, society
is clamoring for a renewed sense of ethics in the way businesses are run.
Attempting to legislate against future Enrons or WorldComs, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley
Act in 2002. Among its provisions, this act requires businesses to implement internal
auditing controls that prevent or detect inaccurate bookkeeping.
Such societal and legislative demands can’t be overlooked when preparing future business
professionals for their careers. The University has adjusted its curriculum by adding
an accounting systems course that addresses the ramifications of Sarbanes-Oxley. But
how does one — can one even — instruct a person in ethics?
Associate Professor David Willis teaches a May Term course on accounting fraud. One
of the most glaring recent examples of such fraud involved former WorldCom executive
Bernie Ebbers, shown above after being taken into custody. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
As more than 20 percent of the Illinois Wesleyan student body carries a major within
the business administration department, it’s an important question. Is the requirement
of a course dedicated to business ethics the answer?
“I always thought it would be interesting to see if (Enron’s) Kenneth Lay or Bernie
Ebbers took an ethics course when they were in college. It would speak a lot about
whether or not that makes a difference,” says Accounting Professor Gerald Olson, who
believes not just a single class but “all of our courses should incorporate the teaching
of good business ethics.”
Associate Professor David Marvin, who recently finished a rotation as business administration
chair, agrees. “In my opinion, the best way to teach ethics is to incorporate it as
part of a routine — whenever we talk about something, we’re also going to talk about
the ethics of it, rather than, ‘Here’s all these things you can do as a marketer,
financial analyst or as a lawyer, then throw in one chapter, “Oh, by the way, be ethical
while you’re doing all that other stuff.””
Ceasar Douglas graduated from IWU in 1975 and today teaches master of business administration
classes at Florida State University. As he looks back on his own education at Illinois
Wesleyan and recognizes that his most enduring lessons weren’t necessarily part of
the curriculum, Douglas believes that ethics can, in fact, be passed to the next generation.
“At that age — especially at college age, when it’s their first venture away from
home — they’re a sponge at that point. So much of what goes on they’re watching and
learning from. It can be taught.”
IWU Marketing Instructor Carrie Trimble certainly hopes so. While colleagues weave
ethical discussions into their various business courses, Trimble has also taught a
special topics course on business ethics and a Marketing and Social Responsibility
class that’s laden with ethical themes.
“One of the reasons I’m interested in teaching these courses,” says Trimble, “is that
I get frustrated because I hear from students that there’s only one way to be a profitable
corporation, and that may involve not being ethically good. It’s this kind of jaded
and very tired (view) — it’s like they’re worn out before they’re 21.
“I want (students) to understand that there are practical costs to unethical behaviors
in business,” says Trimble, “and you can’t assume that the only way to get ahead is
to lie, cheat, and steal.”
She cites practical costs such as damaged public opinion; a loss of the trust that’s
essential in maintaining long-term relationships with customers; and, if the public
outcry is great enough, the possibility of legislation changing as a result of your
Professor Gerald Olson
In contrast to Trimble, Olson has found himself challenging students’ idealism rather
than their world-weariness. He hopes to prepare those students — brace them — for
just how difficult their choices out there are going to be.
“I’ve taught auditing for close to 20 years. One of the questions I’ve always asked
students is, (what would you do) if you’re a controller someday and the CEO comes
to you and says, ‘I need to find ways to create more wealth, and do it with the accounting
system and not do it with the actual generation of new resources. Take care of it
“Of course the students’ response to that is, ‘I would not do that.’”
Then Olson paints the rest of the hypothetical picture, telling his students to imagine
having a mortgage, two kids in college, a pension, and 20 years with their company.
“Then the wheels start turning,” he says. “I think they realize it’s not easy to say
no to someone who has that kind of authority over you.”
The past few years of widely publicized scandals have actually made it easier to talk
to students about ethics, Olson says. “The kids can relate to it better.”
Trimble agrees. Before the recent spate of corporate scandals, “You could talk about
consequences but they seemed unlikely to happen,” she says. “Now, it’s more likely.”
Marvin assigns reading about various ethical schools of thought as a starting point
in pushing students to analyze how they personally make decisions.
“I do that specifically because I want them here in an academic environment to spend
that time in self-reflection, to contemplate the structure or framework in their heads
that leads them to reach the decisions about right and wrong that they take for granted,”
“My goal is that, when students face an ethical dilemma at work a few years from now,
having gone through this process while they are here at Illinois Wesleyan will allow
them to make a better decision then. Ultimately that’s what we’re all trying to do
in every class in one way or another.”
Marvin wants their first time thinking through an ethical dilemma to be while in school,
“rather than when there are bosses and shareholders and others breathing down their
necks. One of the values of the academic setting is you have the time to contemplate
that you might not have in the real world. You also have the ability to make a mistake,
the ability to think out loud and not have to come to a firm conclusion, which you
then have to defend.”
Sammie Robinson (far left) and Carrie Trimble are among the business faculty committed
to regularly bringing discussions of ethics into their classrooms. (Photo by Marc Featherly)
Trimble warns her students that she will play devil’s advocate to challenge whichever
ethical system they discuss. While many students reflexively look to the Golden Rule
(“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), she points out its limitations:
“The assumption (of the Golden Rule) is people won’t do things wrong because they
don’t want wrong things done to them. But if you don’t think a particular behavior
is wrong, you may not care if it’s done to you.”
For example, an aggressive businessperson may admire the competitor who beats him
to the punch — and therefore will have no qualms about striking first.
“People say, ‘That’s just the way the game is played. Yeah, that person got swindled,
but it could have happened to me — I’m just smarter than he is.’”
Another school of thought cited in defense of dubious business behavior is the utilitarian
ethic — philosopher John Stuart Mill’s “greatest good for the greatest number.” A
company can claim this ethic as long as its actions help more people than they hurt,
Associate Professor of Accounting David Willis acknowledges that a business professor
isn’t necessarily an expert on the subtleties of ethical theory. All IWU students
have a general education requirement for “analysis of values,” which can be met with
a course on business ethics offered by the philosophy department. But Willis believes
that also bringing the discussion into business courses provides helpful context.
“There are ways in which we have some expertise, understanding the institutional framework
within which people live their ethical lives. I think we may be able to help students
understand the complexity of ethical choices; we understand numbers are not black
and white, cut and dried, right and wrong. There’s a lot of subjectivity in numbers
— so (they) should be more alert to the potential bias in numbers.”
Students in Willis’s new May Term course, Accounting Fraud, learned about some potential
pitfalls of their chosen profession as they examined recent scandals.
“It’s really helpful to know about the different things that have happened before
to catch them in the future,” says Kristin Bandurski ’07. “We’ve learned how auditors
are paid by companies to do their audit, and how that becomes a problem where you
want to keep your clients (so) you lie for them. It’s kind of nice to know that problem
is out there, so you can avoid it.”
Amid today’s glaring headlines of CEOs run amok, students of business history realize
there’s nothing all too new in 21st-century scandals.
Yet with modern corporations making “quantum leaps” in size, today’s scandals command
attention through sheer scale, Willis says. They also get attention because so many
average citizens invest in the markets, his student Michelle Negwer ’07 has learned.
“People are more interested in it now because of all the investing community wanting
to know if a company (they) have stock in is doing well or not,” she says. “When companies
are public it has more of an impact on the common investor.”
Yet Douglas believes the market-focused demand for quarterly profits that exceed —
not just meet — expectations is part of what creates pressure to commit fraud. Stockholders
rolling in profits also might be inclined to look the other way when they should remain
vigilant against corporate mishandling, IWU professors note.
Consequences hit home after Enron’s collapse, when accounting giant Arthur Andersen
disbanded amid charges of obstructing justice on behalf of Enron, which was one of
its major clients. The impact was felt at Illinois Wesleyan, which at one time was
among the top 10 universities from which Chicago-based Andersen hired employees, Willis
says. When the accounting firm unraveled in the spring of 2002, some IWU seniors hired
by Andersen the previous fall were briefly left scrambling for replacement jobs. (Willis
and Olson know of no alumni who worked at the Enron-auditing Houston office).
One of the students suddenly without a job was Rebecca Bernard ’02. Today she works
at the Midwest regional office of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), where
she also had interned while at Illinois Wesleyan. She is a staff accountant for the
Division of Enforcement, helping to investigate securities violations, including financial
fraud, insider trading, and market manipulation.
“Ironically, it was the impact of a corporate scandal that prompted my return to the
SEC,” Bernard says. “For me, Enron highlighted certain inherent weaknesses in the
accounting industry. As a CPA and an auditor, I wanted to be involved in addressing
those issues. The SEC provided me with that opportunity.”
While one might think that all the bad press about accountants would turn students
away from the profession, Olson believes it’s had the opposite effect.
“Students now see that accounting does make a difference, it does matter. If the accountants
at Andersen had done (their) jobs better when they were doing the audit for Enron,
then a lot of people would still have their pensions today and their jobs. … There’s
social good to be derived from the kind of work that is done in accounting. It’s not
just number crunching, or making money for people who already have money. It does
have an impact for everybody.”
Willis believes Illinois Wesleyan students are, as a whole, “good, honorable human
beings whom I would trust to be good, honorable professionals.” But, he adds, “I think
they probably come in, not understanding the complexity … and not necessarily understanding
how the overall (business) environment can cloud one’s judgment. So we try to alert
them to that.”
Happy to urge students to think for themselves, Marvin is also wary of “indoctrinating”
students with his own ethical perspective.
“I don’t want to assume the role of telling them what the right moral position is,”
says Marvin, “(but) I certainly like forcing them to think about moral judgments.”
Associate Professor of Business Administration Frederick Hoyt embraces his role as
“I personally feel a moral and ethical responsibility to teach ethics to our students,”
he says, adding with a nod to his volunteer occupation, “as a Scoutmaster, I could
hardly do less.”
He illustrates his view with a personal story involving ethical consumer behavior.
A store clerk once told him that he could, hypothetically, return a well-used item,
since the store’s policy allowed it. “Then she added, with a sweet smile, ‘But if
you do, you’ll roast in hell.’ I think, ultimately, that’s what it’s all about,” Hoyt
Willis doesn’t invoke fire and brimstone, but he says the question of “ethics” needn’t
be a tricky one. “When one goes back and looks at the major scandals and problems,
I don’t think it required elaborate analysis. I think most of them were (clear) breakdowns.”
“I’m not a big one on ethical relativism in many areas,” agrees Sammie Robinson, assistant
professor of business administration. “You know what’s right or wrong. Yes, there
are shades of gray sometimes, but you know. The question is, where are you going to
stand when you’re confronted with it.”
On the national level, Marvin says, “The reaction to perceived unethical conduct has
been to codify what we think should be ethical principles into law. We’re not changing
anyone’s ethics; we’re just changing the law to which they have to comply.”
Olson points out that the Sarbanes-Oxley Act leaves room for the determined swindler
to circumvent its new controls.
“Nothing is going to prevent people from doing that, other than their own ethical
and moral behavior,” he says. “That’s what it boils down to. Greed is what has played
a big role in most of these frauds.”
Robinson has heard this view and finds it disheartening — especially since today’s
students were learning to walk and talk around the time Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gecko
character uttered those famous cinematic words about greed.
“This is the bling-bling generation. Every message they get tells them to ‘Get yours,
any which way you can,’” Robinson says. “And while I’m a good capitalist — I believe
that the first duty of a corporation is to make a profit — I also believe that there’s
nothing that you should do in the pursuit of profit that harms people.” She laments
that business today is conducted as if dollars are the only bottom line, the human
“The only way that’s going to stop is for this generation to stop it. They’re the
ones we’re depending on — just like we’re depending on them so that we can get a Social
Security check. We’re depending on them to turn this thing around.”
On the subject of capitalism, Hoyt likes to raise, in a “liberal arts context,” what
he calls “cosmic” questions that challenge this underpinning of American society.
One of those questions involves the “invisible hand” theory proffered by 18th-century
economist Adam Smith. Smith’s theory argues that society will benefit as an unintended
result of individuals pursuing personal gain. Simply put, the butcher and baker don’t
bring food to market out of benevolence toward people’s need, but because they can
profit from its sale. Yet the community benefits and is fed.
Hoyt counters, “The individual in pursuit of self-interest advances self-interest.
If I get rewarded simply for making money, then the means are not really important”
— including who may be helped, or hurt, in the process.
Challenging the premise of various economic theories, even cherished ones, is healthy,
Hoyt believes. “I like to raise questions about the nature of the system itself. I’m
not sure I answer them — I’m not sure I can answer them — but I think it’s good for
students to know that those questions do exist.”
In part because of such deeper questions, Willis believes that a liberal arts setting
is the best place to learn about business. He also thinks the study of business itself
can be a liberal art.
“(In business) you’re balancing multiple perspectives, the perspectives of different
parties; you’re trying to look at what the past tells you of the future. To the degree
that you’re dealing with customers or suppliers or employees from different cultures,
you have to understand the impact of different cultures, you have to understand the
importance of diversity. It is a domain where one is fully challenged to employ the
whole arsenal of the liberal arts.
“Students need to learn how to think, and how to analyze and communicate, not just
to regurgitate facts and figures. I think it’s not just liberal arts as a means to
a better business education, it’s business education as an ideal domain for teaching
the values of liberal arts — ethics and morality being one of them, but not the only.”
Bernard says ethics was an underlying theme in all her business courses at Illinois
Wesleyan. She remembers using an SEC case study text in her auditing class to study
real-life examples of financial fraud, discussing the financial pressures involved,
the propriety of the individuals’ conduct, and the actions that could have been taken
to prevent the fraud.
“I believe that teaching ethics is a key part of any business education,” she says.
“In our competitive marketplace, financial pressures will always exist. The best thing
that educators can do is to prepare students to properly respond to such influences,
enabling them to be a source of ‘positive pressure’ within the system.”
Robinson believes Illinois Wesleyan is positioned to turn out socially responsible
graduates who don’t bow to the pressures of corporate greed. She adds, “Or if they
do (bow to pressure), I want to have at least a moment in their conscience.”
She regularly asks students to do a “self-management project,” where they choose one
thing in their lives they are going to change. She particularly remembers a young
man who became fascinated by the story of Pat Tillman, the professional football player
who gave up fame and fortune to serve in the Army and was killed in Afghanistan. The
student wrestled with why anyone would walk away from “everything the world says we’re
supposed to have.”
While many students made their projects “to study more, lose weight, stop biting (their)
nails,” Robinson recalls, this student undertook a search for his true purpose in
“That’s what this university is about. I said to him, ‘Go talk to a philosophy professor,
go talk to an English professor — go talk to people about these ideas that you’re
Compared to his classmates, “his (project) was totally off the beam, but this is a
school where we can take our time with the students we think are totally off the beam.
Because he’s struggling, he’s thinking, he’s evaluating at the age of 20,” Robinson
says. “Next year we’ll send him out into the world; he’s grappling with who he’s going
to be, because he hasn’t quite bought in to all of that stuff.
“So part of teaching ethics and social responsibility is providing opportunities for
students to grapple with those questions. Before life asks them.”
* Illinois Wesleyan’s Business Administration Department Web site is at http://sun.iwu.edu/~business/
or click here.