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I solemnly swear ... to never become Bernie Madoff

'I will act with integrity and respect in all my dealings.

"I will allow neither ego nor malice to play a role in my decision-making process.

"I will conduct my activities in an environmentally sustainable manner, and will consider the true societal costs when making investment and operating decisions …"

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When Harley Finkelstein, a 25-year-old from Montreal, solemnly intoned these words at his convocation ceremony last weekend within the glass-enclosed foyer of the University of Ottawa's Desmarais Building, they had a unique meaning for him - because he wrote them.

Mr. Finkelstein, now a graduate of the MBA program at the university's Telfer School of Management, had heard about student-sponsored oaths of ethical conduct at American business schools, but he was dubious about the motives.

"We got the sense that some of what was being done was a PR campaign," he says, aimed at repairing tarnished brands after the schools' once-venerated alumni turned out to be part of Wall Street's burgeoning wall of shame.

But he was troubled by all the fingers pointing at MBA graduates as the culprits behind the global economic crisis. And that got him thinking: "Management is one of the only professions where you can be the Enron boys or Bernie Madoff, but no one will take away your ability to practise as a professional manager," he says. "There isn't any accountability beyond being in the red or the black for shareholders."

So, after reviewing oaths that engineers, management consultants and other professionals take before receiving their designations, and polling classmates on the most important qualities in a manager, Mr. Finkelstein and a fellow student crafted the Telfer pledge.

Following last weekend's convocation, the graduating students swore to abide by its principles, as did some professors and alumni. "Everything we say in the oath can probably be found in any corporate best-practices guide," Mr. Finkelstein concedes. "All we did is spell it out and put our name to it."

This month, as business students across the country receive their diplomas, a growing number have taken formal pledges to bring socially responsible, ethical conduct into their profession. One of the most prominent examples is the Harvard Business School's new MBA oath - a commitment to "serve the greater good" that has become an international phenomenon, with thousands of students around the world signing the promise.

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But the pledge movement is only one of the ways that business management programs are changing. MBA programs around the globe are rushing to prove that they teach students to be good - not just rich - by revamping their curriculums and encouraging debates about ethical corporate behaviour. There is even a student-led movement to create an oversight body that would regulate managers, as other organizations do lawyers and doctors.

Yet, as business-school professors marvel at a level of student activism they have not seen since the 1960s, others wonder whether all this apparent idealism may have self-serving motives.

In the wake of the financial meltdown, business schools are experiencing an identity crisis. The parade of high-profile MBA-holding miscreants - from Richard Fuld (class of 1973, Stern School of Business), who led the Lehman Brothers brokerage deep into subprime mortgages and eventual bankruptcy while collecting nearly half a billion dollars for himself, to John Thain (1979, Harvard), who ladled out billions in bonuses to Merrill Lynch employees before revealing that the company had lost $15-billion (U.S.) - has tainted a degree that has long been viewed as the direct route to the corner office.

So just what is wrong with the MBA education? Henry Mintzberg, who runs McGill University's International Masters Program in Practicing Management (emphatically not an MBA), has for years argued that traditional business programs, with their emphasis on theory and case-study analysis, engender hubris and detachment in young people who gain little or no practical experience.

Writing in The Globe and Mail this past spring, he blamed the financial meltdown on the "monumental failure of management," calling business schools "the perpetrators of this mess." And he's not alone. Others have condemned business schools' emphasis on star leaders, their focus on individualism and the single-minded monetary definition of success.

What's different this time around is that some of this criticism is emanating from within the schools themselves.

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Margaret Cunningham, the new director of the School of Business Administration at Dalhousie University in Halifax, recalls the disconcerting indifference to social consequences in some of the teaching she received during her own MBA education. In one class, the professor outlined ways companies can avoid paying tax, "and I remember being concerned: Are we shaving this so close that we're walking on grey ground? Even more disturbing was the fact that nobody in the class questioned that."

Last year, she took over the Dalhousie program with the mandate to focus its curriculum on leadership with social responsibility. It's not just the right thing to do, she says, but an opportunity to cater to the priorities of the incoming generation. "Generation Y are students who, from the time they were children, heard about sustainability and climate change, and who question the endless hours their parents work," Ms. Cunningham says. "They've been socialized into more humanistic values."

And they want their employers to share those values. Tim Hockey, chief executive officer of TD Canada Trust, who helped to spearhead an oath ceremony at University of Western Ontario's Richard Ivey School of Business that began in 2004, goes to the school each year with his recruiters and sees those attitudes first-hand. "Their desire is not just about making money and building a career," he says.

Students ask themselves whether they believe they would fit in a particular organization and ask questions such as, "Will you support me in my long-term career and aspirations?" And the corporate promises about social responsibility and sustainable practices had better ring authentic, Mr. Hockey adds, because these students have a sensitive radar for token gestures and green-washing.

Such changing attitudes, combined with the broader backlash, are pushing business schools to add more ethics-related courses and incorporate social responsibility concerns into existing ones.

University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, for example, has gone from having a couple of professors teaching a mandatory ethics course to an entire centre devoted to ethics research and a roster of highly popular classes.

Dalhousie's faculty of management offers the Management Without Borders program, in which students from its various streams - business management, environmental studies, library science, government administration - attend classes together and collaborate on social-enterprise projects, such as planning a hotel staffed by indigent people. The idea, Ms. Cunningham says, is to challenge students' biases: Someone from the marine-affairs program is likely to stake out different positions than a classmate doing a financial services MBA.

Students at many universities and colleges have also organized clubs and conferences dealing with corporate and personal accountability. Hands-on projects with local non-profit groups show students how business expertise can benefit the broader community - such as applying marketing lessons to help a men's shelter raise funds.

The financial crisis itself has provided a rich vein for ethics discussions. At Ivey, for example, a team of professors has been interviewing business leaders in an effort to create a "leadership manifesto" that can bring lessons into the classrooms.

"Was it just overconfidence, group-think and conformity, and if so, what do we need to do about self-awareness among our students?" says Dean Carol Stephenson. "After all, some leaders avoided the group-think and withstood criticism when others were jumping on the bandwagon to take greater risks."

It's hard to disagree with the principles espoused by this new generation of entrepreneurs and executives, but both business leaders and outside skeptics wonder if their lofty goals are realistic. Mr. Finkelstein, for one, doesn't want to stop with mere words. He would like to see managers become accountable to a professional body that sets out covenants by which they must abide. He has already heard from the Harvard oath organizers who are launching a similar initiative, as well as the Aspen Institute, a U.S. think tank fostering "values-based leadership."

But is such an effort practical? "I support the discussion," says Mr. Hockey of TD, "but there are many professional managers who achieve that [status]without going to business school." Would anyone promoted into management ranks have to be sworn in?

More broadly, these graduates will face a corporate Canada dominated by their parents' generation, one more driven by self-interest and narrow concerns of corporate performance. Can they stick to their avowed principles - to act "with moral clarity" (in the words of the Ivey pledge) or to strive for "sustainable economic, social and environmental prosperity worldwide" (Harvard) - in a world where productivity is still measured in units of sales and in cents of share price?

Many further point out that it is easy enough to sign a pledge; as long as there is no enforcement, it is all warm and fuzzy intentions with no risk of consequence. As Ben W. Heineman Jr., who teaches at Harvard's law and international relations schools, recently noted in the Harvard Business Review, "Oaths (and codes) are empty, even hypocritical rhetoric if they're not backed by more."

Mr. Heineman pointed to the recent bribery scandal at Germany's Siemens AG that resulted in $1.5-billion (U.S.) in penalties, even though the global tech giant has a strong code prohibiting bribery.

What's more, it is hard to discount self-interest as at least a partial motivation for the renewed focus on integrity. Students who have invested tens of thousands of dollars in their educations do not want their hard-won designations to lose lustre. And while business schools are currently flooded with recession refugees - be they laid-off executives taking the opportunity to beef up their CVs or undergraduates forestalling entrance into a less-than-promising work force - they fear their brands' loss of clout.

Already, there are reports of some employers shifting emphasis away from executive MBAs - business schools' biggest cash cows - toward practical experience or other degrees, and of students opting for graduate degrees in law or accounting as the path into the corporate world.

Of course, it's too simplistic to lay the blame for the business sector's ethical lapses solely on education programs. Yet to exonerate them completely is also difficult. Consider a 2006 academic study that found more than half of MBA students - a greater percentage than in any other discipline - admitted to cheating regularly. The respondents' main reason was telling: because they thought others were doing it.

Whether assumptions about how business is conducted emanate from schools, from business, or from the media and society at large, business programs may be in the best position to correct them. Failing to instruct future corporate leaders that their responsibilities extend beyond their bosses and shareholders, Ms. Cunningham says, "is like raising a child without teaching them that their conduct has an impact on other people." The current scrutiny, she says, "is an opportunity to see to it that the highly ego-driven ways are not tenable, that they're passé.

"It's more risky to stick with the old model than to move to the new one."

Joanna Pachner is a Toronto-based writer.

The Globe and Mail's Report on MBA Schools comes out on Tuesday, and will be online at GlobeCampus.ca.

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