Integrity in Business Education

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Tuesday, August 17, 2021
Michelle Darnell
Director, Tarriff Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Tawnya Means
Assistant Dean, Educational Innovation, and Chief Learning Officer, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Gretchen Winter
Executive Director, Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society, Gies College of College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign
Photo by iStock/PeopleImages
How can our global community of business schools work together to ensure our students develop into ethical leaders? We suggest a place to start.

AACSB’s recently updated standards call on business schools to make a difference in the world through positive societal impact. While a healthy degree of competition exists among business schools, they share this common mission. Indeed, we all benefit from research that drives positive change and high-quality teaching that prepares the next generation of leaders to act with integrity. 

As business educators, we increasingly recognize that our collective activities benefit society, and that a rising tide lifts all boats. We must take every opportunity to share our best practices with each other with the goal of enabling our students to make positive contributions to their communities.

The three of us write now in that same spirit of collaboration—with the understanding that each of our schools can distinctly deliver on our shared mission.

Short-Term and Long-Term Impact

Business has the potential to positively impact the lives of individuals and society as a whole through the creation of long-term value. In 2019, the Business Roundtable emphasized this potential, noting the belief that “the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all.” However, without ethical leaders contributing to and guiding this system, society can experience value extraction from business practices motivated by fulfillment of short-term, selfish interests.

AACSB reinforces the relevance and urgency of responsible leadership in business on page 9 of its 2020 Guiding Principles and Standards for Business Accreditation. There it notes that “society is increasingly demanding that companies become more accountable for their actions, exhibit a greater sense of social responsibility, and embrace more sustainable practices. These trends send a strong signal that what business needs today is much different from what it needed yesterday or will need tomorrow.” The reality is that AACSB-accredited institutions and society more broadly have a shared goal of ensuring that students are prepared to lead with integrity.

As educators, then, we also share an obligation to shape our students into responsible leaders. In that respect, our impact as educators does not end with the students we teach today, but extends to everyone they encourage and enable to engage in responsible business activity in the future.

Still, we do not have to look to a distant future to see the benefit of our efforts. We can realize a meaningful impact in a much shorter timeframe. Through the quality of the experiences we provide to students, we not only shape our schools’ institutional reputations and encourage recruiters to hire our graduates. We also can take every opportunity to motivate our students to choose to pursue meaningful purpose in their careers.

Working Toward Our Shared Goal

As Michelle Darnell, a co-author of this article, explores in a recent white paper, we can develop academic models that help students develop healthy attitudes toward academic integrity. It is not enough for us simply to integrate issues of ethics and social responsibility into our formal curricula and co-curricular activities. We also must provide students with a holistic experience that cultivates their ability to act with and advocate for integrity.

We see three distinct but intersecting areas we must take into account as we introduce integrity into the business curriculum:

Academic integrity is often construed in the negative, with the focus placed on preventing behaviors such as cheating on exams or plagiarizing content in papers. However, many educators support more positive efforts for educating students about what academic integrity is and why it is important. These strategies include communicating academic integrity standards and relevant processes, educating faculty on how to navigate unique challenges of online or hybrid courses, implementing environmental controls within learning environments, and developing cultures committed to integrity. 

Professional integrity is equally critical. Students must embrace and consistently display behaviors that contribute to developing honorable professional reputations. As educators, we might provide resources to help our students develop and monitor their social media profiles, prepare for interview questions that bring up questions of character, interact with recruiters effectively, choose paths that align with their own deeply held values, and form sustaining mentoring relationships. 


Academic integrity is often focused on preventing behaviors such as cheating on exams. However, many educators support more positive efforts for educating students about what academic integrity is and why it is important.

Applied learning ensures that our students are actively engaged in opportunities to practice ethical behavior and leadership skills. We must ask them to repeatedly work to resolve situations that conflict with their values. Such opportunities might include awarding students badges for different experiential activities, setting expectations for leaders of student organizations, and holding case competitions that explicitly address issues of ethics or social responsibility.

We suggest the general methods above for supporting student development, but we also believe that business schools need to work together to find more ways to integrate ethics into their programs. Together, we must explore and answer a range of questions: What are best practices for encouraging students to care about integrity? How do we effectively shape behaviors that demonstrate responsibility? How do we make sure that students understand not only what constitutes an ethical decision, but also how to act strategically to put such a decision into practice?

Creating a Collective Action Plan

By collaborating across institutions, we can expand the list of actions business colleges can undertake to develop students into ethical leaders. We also can increase the feasibility, efficiency, and impact of carrying out those actions.

As one example, for the past three years Penn State’s Smeal College of Business has sponsored its Business with Integrity Case Competition. This initiative has effectively engaged students, recruiters, faculty, and alumni in ethical issues. The competition is also an example of a institutional collaboration, in that its success was heavily influenced by Smeal faculty’s exposure to similar case competitions sponsored by other business schools.

The impact of this competition has gone one step further through a recent partnership between the Smeal College of Business and the College of Business at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL). This year, UNL’s College of Business replicated the model to create its own Business with Integrity Case Competition. Due to the pandemic, this competition was run completely online, which taught us additional lessons that we can share with other programs, particularly regarding the potential to increase the participation of alumni and advisory board members as judges and coaches.


Business colleges can turn to partnerships to create “a platform for business schools to work together to foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact in business education.”


The future of collaboration to expand this competition remains wide open. Organizers are now considering engaging additional schools and even creating an intercollegiate competition that would bring the winners of individual college competitions together. For example, Gies College of Business at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign plans to join this collaboration and help envision an intercollegiate dimension to the competition to enhance student experiences.

Gretchen Winter, a co-author of this article, also testifies to the broader impact such initiatives can have on a college. Winter, who serves as executive director of the Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society at Gies, attributes the creation of a for-credit class at the college in part to excitement created when students had the opportunity to interact and compete with students from other schools. 

Share Your Best Practices

The opportunity exists for many business colleges to turn to such partnerships to realize the intent behind AACSB’s shared accreditation standards. As the 2020 Guiding Principles emphasize, we can create “a platform for business schools to work together to foster engagement, accelerate innovation, and amplify impact in business education—and create a shared sense of responsibility to impact society positively.”

To further expand on this collaboration, we invite you to use this form (which requires a Google sign-in) to share your practices for nurturing and developing the next generation of leaders to act with integrity. We hope you will provide short summaries of practices that your college or program has implemented, as well as any associated resources such as links, files, graphics, or videos. If possible, we ask you to tag your submission with a few key words and provide contact information.

We will review and organize the submissions, with the intent of sharing the practices on the AACSB Exchange member forum. In this way, we hope to start an ongoing collective conversation about how, together, our institutions can develop students into more responsible, ethical leaders.

Authors
Michelle Darnell
Director, Tarriff Center for Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Smeal College of Business, Pennsylvania State University
Tawnya Means
Assistant Dean, Educational Innovation, and Chief Learning Officer, Gies College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
Gretchen Winter
Executive Director, Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society, Gies College of College of Business, University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign
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