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Portico brings Kant, Bentham, and Charles Ponzi to the Carroll School curriculum
In 1998, as a new accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers, Landen Williams ’96 was involved in the audit of Tyco International, whose chief executive, Dennis Kozlowski, was sentenced to prison in 2005 for misappropriation of corporate funds. Last November, Williams recounted his experience, including several early red flags that were identified, to a class of students taking Portico, a new required first-semester course at the Carroll School of Management (CSOM). As the name implies, the three-credit course is meant to provide structured entry to the study of business and the pursuit of a business career. It integrates a course of ethical theory with the basics of finance, accounting, marketing, and other business components, challenging students—nearly 500 this past fall—to flex their moral reasoning as they consider business case studies and, going forward, their own practices in the field.
“We want to inspire a habit of reflection in these students that they’ll return to in their four years of college and beyond,” says CSOM dean Andrew Boynton ’78. “We need to create leaders and managers who are technically proficient and have the skills to strategically move a business forward,” says Boynton. “But without a perspective of ethical reasoning, a framework for making the tough decisions . . . they would be ill-equipped to lead in the way we want our alumni to lead.”
Portico replaces an ethics requirement that according to Richard Keeley, CSOM’s undergraduate associate dean, was a one-credit course: “The unintended signal was that ‘this is something to get through quickly.’ It only met for an hour a week.” Portico students meet twice a week in assigned sections, each comprising roughly 20 freshmen, and in addition attend weekly evening plenary sessions.
The course had its genesis in 2007, when Boynton asked faculty working groups from CSOM and the College of Arts and Sciences to help develop a syllabus that would provide an introduction to business, including such subjects as globalization and leadership, with ethics as its spine. Portico had a pilot run in 2008 and is now taught by an interdisciplinary team of seven faculty and some 25 teaching assistants. Throughout the semester, case studies and lectures on the elements of business are joined to readings (from Aristotle and Immanuel Kant to Jeremy Bentham and Ayn Rand) and discussions of issues encountered in business leadership with alumni corporate executives.
Coursework commenced during the summer, with students reading from Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree and David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, both of which examine the causes and consequences of globalization. In an early-semester tour of the Boston area, students were asked to consider this and other business-related themes in context: Stops ranged from the Harvard Square T station, where they discussed mass transit as an engine of change and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority as a business model, to the site of the former School Street offices of Charles Ponzi, whose notorious pyramid creation of 1919–20, the “Ponzi scheme,” was recently incarnated by convicted money manager Bernard Madoff.
Following corporate scandals at Enron in 2001 and WorldCom in 2002, many undergraduate and graduate business programs undertook to expand their ethics offerings. In 2003, for example, the University of California’s Haas School introduced a Center for Responsible Business, offering seven new ethics courses; that same year, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania announced a new Ph.D. program in business ethics. Portico is unique, Keeley says, because it asks students to consider the ethical dimensions of even the mundane everyday business decision. The object is to “make it messy,” Keeley says, just like life.
Portico students on occasion wrestle with business issues literally. Early in the semester, they pried apart a cell phone. They examined it as a manufactured, assembled product and considered it as a tool. They studied the conditions under which workers around the world produced its components and discussed the environmental impacts stemming from its construction. They also unraveled the product’s effect on consumers’ “privacy, rights, and freedoms,” according to CSOM’s assistant dean for curriculum, Ethan Sullivan. The questions raised during the exercise, says Ju Young Yoon ’13, who is contemplating a major in marketing, were in the end “about how these ideas we’re learning at the Carroll School will affect us later in life.”
On the wall of one Portico classroom hangs an unassuming poster that sets out three simple questions: How shall I live? How shall we work together? What kind of world shall we share?
These questions resonate in a singular way with new CSOM students, says Betty Bagnani, an adjunct associate professor of accounting who teaches a Portico section. They’re why, in addition to studying such concepts as Michael Porter’s “five forces” model of business analysis, students are assigned portions of Plato’s Gorgias, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, and Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, among other classical works of ethical theory. “Add all the information, all the case studies, and the speakers from just this course that these students are trying to integrate with all the other first experiences of college,” says Bagnani, “and the question of what kind of person you want to be becomes extremely relevant and challenging.”
The instructors make it clear that the big decisions don’t all wait for graduation. Accounting lecturer Amy LaCombe asks her Portico class during one session after a week of readings on Ayn Rand’s egoism and Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism, “Do we have obligations to others?” Several students venture that they probably owe their parents something. “But where do you draw the line?” LaCombe presses. “What if your parents say, we’re spending all this money on your education, and we really want you to be a finance major, but you hate finance?” The question elicits murmurs, but no real answers, and the class moves on to discuss a scenario that some of the students may face in the near future—accepting a job offer and then being tempted by another that pays more—with the class debating the choice from egoist or utilitarian points of view.
Late in the semester, the students submit a game plan for what they hope to accomplish in their remaining three and a half years at Boston College.
The aim of preparing students to shape the ethical culture in which they’ll work is a challenge that CSOM alumni in the corporate world can inform. As Michael Dupee ’90, vice president for corporate social responsibility at Green Mountain Coffee, told an audience of Portico students and others at a fall forum sponsored by the Carroll School’s Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics: “The real impact of for-profit business comes from how we choose to operate our businesses, as opposed to simply what we give back.” Later, in class, Amy LaCombe reinforced the message that such choices are rarely straightforward. Business is filled with situations, she said, where “values and interests” will conflict.
And as Keeley notes, “These decisions are tough. . . . This class is about getting into the habit of thinking deeply about them.”
Chris Berdik is a Boston-based writer.
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