Just before their graduation ceremony, about 50 MBA students lined up to affix their signatures to an oath that pledged that they would conduct their work with integrity by making ethical and moral decisions.
After repeating the 235-word oath in unison, one by one, these students came up to sign a copy of it on a two-by-three-foot board before receiving a certificate that they had made the pledge of business ethics.
This ceremony signaled that the University of Maryland University College was joining a growing number of business schools that are highlighting the need for ethics in business.
The movement began at Harvard's business school in 2009 as the financial collapse underscored the damage that unethical business decisions can have around the world. The theory is that if the Hippocratic Oath has improved the ethical standards of doctors, then perhaps an MBA oath can improve business practices.
Aric Krause, dean of UMUC's graduate school, told the signers that his study of the financial collapse found that it was caused by thousands of unethical decisions made by people who thought they could get away with them.
"Every decision we make matters. Every decision we make must be ethical," Krause said. "Look what happened. Trillions and trillions and trillions of dollars were lost because all of these people in isolation were making decisions that were unethical.
Robert Goodwin, chair of the Business and Executive Program, said he initially opposed the oath because he thought it was a worthless piece of paper. But he said he has made a 180-degree turn.
"It does mean something," he said. "You are the physical evidence of a personal commitment on your part. If we could get that personal commitment of wide swaths of individuals in the country, we would be in a place with few macro problems."
Dr. Anna Seferian, the associate chair of the Business and Executive Programs, took the lead among the faculty in promoting the oath, bringing together a group of faculty and alumni to study it. They launched a series of Web seminars to educate the students as to what it is all about.
"This is not something you do to make your resume look good," Seferian told the signers. "You do this because personally you think it is important, and it comes from the heart."
The drive to include UMUC's MBA program in the oath movement was launched by graduating student Barclay Butler, who said on the last day of class in the last chapter of a textbook he saw reference to the oath and quickly began to research it.
Butler is not the average MBA student. At 59, he was completing an MBA after retiring from a military career as the Army's chief information medical officer, working in the private sector for 10 years for a number of corporations, and now is in the federal government's senior executive service working on interoperable medical records between the defense department and its private sector partners.
He has a PhD in biomechanics and three other master's degrees. But he said an MBA gives him a credential that makes other business executives take him seriously as a businessperson.
"UMUC is very aggressive in pushing good, ethical business practices in all the classes," he said. "When I saw this, I thought it would be good to add to our students' portfolio.
The goal, Butler said, is to affect the business culture by incremental, ethical behavior. Person by person, he said, ethical business practices can become the norm in the business world.
Businessmen who think they are stuck in a choice between two evils should learn to step back and look for a third way, he said. Every business decision, no matter how small, should be made ethically.
"You should not focus just on the big, tough problems," he said. "If you make every decision with an eye to ethics, then when the big problems arise, you are so well practiced in ethics that you will make the right decision automatically."
Since UMUC attracts MBA students not just from business, but from the government and military, Butler said, it changed the name of the oath from the MBA Oath to the Principal Leaders Oath.
"It recognizes the unique nature of the UMUC population and can reach out further into government, military and the business world," he said. "We will continue to shape the oath so it more appropriately meets the needs of our students."
The OathAs a business leader I recognize my role in society.
- My purpose is to lead people and manage resources to create value that no single individual can create alone.
- My decisions affect the well-being of individuals inside and outside my enterprise, today and tomorrow.
- I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and will not advance my personal interests at the expense of my enterprise or society.
- I will understand and uphold, in letter and spirit, the laws and contracts governing my conduct and that of my enterprise.
- I will refrain from corruption, unfair competition, or business practices harmful to society.
- I will protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my enterprise, and I will oppose discrimination and exploitation.
- I will protect the right of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.
- I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.
- I will invest in developing myself and others, helping the management profession continue to advance and create sustainable and inclusive prosperity.
This oath I make freely, and upon my honor.