Spring 2013

By :

Undergraduate Program Associate Dean Ian Maitland first joined the Carlson School in 1979 and most recently has served as professor of business ethics and international business. He also has taught in the Carlson School’s China and Warsaw Executive MBA programs and the Management of Technology Master’s Program in addition to serving as a Visiting Professor at Keio University in Tokyo in 2001. He has a PhD from Columbia University in sociology and a BA from Magdalen College, Oxford. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant in England, is a member of the California Bar, and served as the President of the Society of Business Ethics in 2010-11.

1. Carlson School students are all above average (as well as nicer).

My wake-up call came in the first class I taught in the Carlson School 30+ years ago. I had just arrived from New York with my newly minted PhD from Columbia. In New York, I had helped pay my way through graduate school by teaching classes at NYU and Queens College (and once a medium-security jail). I immediately noticed a difference between my class in Minnesota and my classes in New York. In New York, everyone in the class insisted on sharing their opinion, but no one had done the readings. In Minnesota there were no loud opinions expressed, so I assumed that they had not prepared either. I wrote a fairly easy midterm examination for the class. Imagine my surprise when everyone in the class aced the exam. (Since then I have only written hard exams, as some of you can testify). That was the first lesson I learned on arriving in Lake Wobegon, and I have never forgotten it.

2. Teaching is a two-way street.

quoteOne of the biggest distinctions on any campus is between “faculty,” or instructors, and “students.” But that has as about much correspondence to reality as an organization chart does to the real distribution of influence and authority in a corporation—meaning some, but it leaves out a lot. One of the first things a new faculty member learns is that these roles are quite artificial. The instructor is more a choreographer than a deliverer of content. A corollary is that instructors don’t teach; they help students to learn. An instructor who doesn’t learn from his or her students is missing out on half of his or her education. The distinction is not entirely artificial, of course. The faculty have themselves acquired the tools they pass on to students; they have had the opportunity to reflect on the materials that they teach; and so on. But the point remains that their knowledge needs to be constantly refreshed by—among other things—interaction with students.

3. Selling ethics in Minnesota.

Teaching ethics in Minnesota is a bit like, to use an English expression, “selling coal to Newcastle.” Newcastle was the largest exporter of coal at one time, so selling coal to Newcastle was a foolhardy idea (though it was tried at least once). Since Minnesota is one of the nation’s biggest exporters of high ethical standards (mostly embodied in Minnesotans), teaching ethics here may seem, if not foolhardy, at least redundant. We are famous for our squeaky-clean politics and business cultures. Our employers boast the friendliest workplaces in the nation. Of course, this means I have to close with a mea culpa. If I took my subject with the seriousness it deserves, shouldn’t I be teaching business ethics in New Jersey or Louisiana where I might have a real impact? Maybe on my next sabbatical.

4. Do different cultures have different ethics?

I have had the amazing privilege of teaching business ethics around the world—in China, Poland, Korea, and Japan. And I grew up in the UK, France, Egypt, and the U.S. So naturally, I am always on the lookout for any national differences in my classes’ reactions to the ethics cases I use. Would my classes in different countries come up with different answers? My short answer is no: I have not found any major differences. At least that holds for classroom discussions. Confronted by different incentives outside the classroom, actual behaviors may be very different from one country to the next. But at least agreement in principle about right and wrong seems to be attainable. I was reminded of this just the other day when I read a report that neuroscientists had discovered that French and Chinese used the same parts of their brains to process writing. The French and the Chinese? Surely you jest? Isn’t Chinese writing pictorial and French phonetic? That may be so, but reading is apparently governed by the same systems in each language. Again, the lesson seems to be that no matter how great the superficial differences, if we drill deep enough we are very similar. If there have been—or will be—conflicts, they are more likely the results of our similarities than our differences.

5. Prediction is hard (especially about the future).

OK, I admit I plagiarized that from Yogi Berra. It also may rank as a truism. But if it is a truism, it is one we need to remind ourselves of every day. One of the fascinating aspects of the aftermath of the recent financial crisis and the Great Recession that followed it is the lynch mob mentality that you can observe even in respectable newspapers like the New York Times. They have a thirst for revenge that will be slaked only if some bankers’ heads roll. But, as you know, very few prosecutions of banks or bankers have come out of the crisis, and there have been virtually no convictions. True, large banks have agreed to multibillion dollar settlements, but they have done so under duress and the threat of litigation as far as the eye can see. One of the charges against banks is that, because of poor record-keeping and/or sharp practices, they improperly foreclosed on many homeowners with unblemished payment records. But recent investigations by consultants hired by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees banks, have turned up so few cases of homeowners victimized by flawed foreclosure procedures that the investigations were suspended. How did the New York Times react? It charged that the OCC investigations of the banks were bungled (and the consultants were overpaid). First the Times wanted to hang the bankers and now it wants to shoot the messengers! What is the lesson? Simply that the financial crisis was not the result of an epidemic of wrongdoing (which is not to say there was no wrongdoing at all) but rather the result of faulty prediction. Enough of us believed home price appreciation was sustainable that we made decisions that are still haunting the economy. Of course, Yogi Berra’s insight has other valuable lessons as well. For undergraduates, a valuable takeaway is that staking one’s future on a prediction that, say, law or public accounting will always provide “plum” jobs is hazardous. So the best advice is that they should cultivate a broad set of interests so they can reinvent themselves when the unpredicted comes to pass—as we can safely predict it will.