Reclaiming the purpose of business education

Reclaiming the purpose of business education

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Posted on February 26, 2015

IN 1881, Joseph Wharton, Quaker industrialist and founder of Bethlehem Steel, said that “a great boon would be bestowed upon the nation if its young men of inherited intellect, means, and refinement could be more generally led so as to manage their property as [theirs], while husbanding it to benefit the community ....” It was with this social vision that the first business school in the United States was born -- The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The View From Taft

Benito L. Teehankee

Decades later, another famous American business school would be set up less than 500 kilometers to the northeast. Wallace Donham, the second dean of Harvard Business School, echoed Wharton’s social commitment in 1927: “I have reached the conclusion that the greatest need of a civilization such as ours, if it is to progress in an orderly evolution, is for socially-minded business men.” He further explained: “The business group largely controls [the mechanisms placed in society’s hands by the development of science and technology] and is therefore in a strategic position to solve [the resulting] problems. Our objective, therefore, should be the multiplication of men who will handle their current business problems in socially constructive ways.”

What is striking about Wharton and Donham is that they focused the purpose of their business schools on social responsibility a century before it became fashionable to talk about “corporate social responsibility.” These two men knew that those who controlled the business resources of a country, along with their chosen successors, held the key to social progress. These two schools achieved world-class status on the basis of this foundational commitment. Presumably, graduates from these and similar business schools imbibed the social values their founders were talking about.

But vision and reality are not easy to reconcile. While the Wharton School and Harvard Business School, along with many other prestigious business schools with social vision, have churned out a veritable army of graduates, the goal of social progress is as elusive as ever. Oxfam International reported that the number of billionaires in the world has doubled since the Global Financial Crisis but inequality has gotten much worse, with 80 of the richest people owning as much as half -- 3.5 billion people -- of the world’s population!

The same troubling situation holds in the Philippines. While we see economic growth and a growing number of billionaires, we are nowhere near our commitment to the UN Millennium Development Goals to bring poverty below 20 percent. One of the most popular degrees taken by Filipino college students is in business and the most popular of such programs are offered by Catholic schools. Since Catholic schools are avowed bastions of social transformation and progress, much like Wharton and Harvard, one will have to ask: “What’s going on in business education? What should business leaders be really doing to have a more positive impact in society?”

To deal with these questions, Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle-College of St. Benilde, and De La Salle University are hosting the 9th International Conference on Catholic Social Thought and Business Education from February 26 to 28. Business faculty from more than 20 countries will tackle the theme “Prosperity, Poverty and the Purpose of Business: Rediscovering Integral Human Development in the Catholic Social Tradition.”

What does Catholic Social Thought have to say about the social challenges facing nations and business today? One key idea is the need to produce not just wealth, but “good wealth.” Good wealth refers to the proper care given to the resources of the earth in order to produce profits that can be shared with all stakeholders of the business. Unfortunately, such sharing hardly happens in modern economies.

French economist Thomas Piketty, in his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-first Century, traced the growing inequality to the fact that the rate of capital return, r, in developed countries is persistently greater than the rate of economic growth, g. Mr. Piketty symbolizes this state of affairs in the expression r > g. This simply means that the very wealthy, by virtue of their substantial capital ownership, will tend to gain much more over time than those who mainly depend on income from work or entrepreneurship.

Businesses are, indeed, engines of wealth creation, and they do this quite well. But unless business owners learn to share the fruits of business activity, whether through decent-paying jobs, profit-sharing or equity distribution schemes, the natural tendency is ever-worsening inequality, persistent poverty, and human misery.

It seems that the purpose of business education hasn’t changed since the time of Wharton and Donham. It is to produce graduates who can create prosperity for all. Are business schools willing to reclaim this purpose?

Benito L. Teehankee is an associate professor at De La Salle University and chairman of the CSR Committee of the Management Association of the Philippines.