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The MBA Oath

As the new academic year gets underway at universities and colleges, what are the prospects for students heading for a career in business? The proverbial 'milk round', when big companies visit universities to recruit the most promising finalists, is in as steep decline as perceptions of the integrity of business. In the UK, trust in business leaders has slumped to just above that of trust in politicians at only six per cent of the population.

But towards the end of last term at Harvard, in the world's most renowned business school, some students began to address this mistrust head on. With help from two professors, they created an MBA oath that committed swearers to eight pledges, such as shunning decisions that 'advance my own narrow ambitions but harm the enterprise and the people it serves'.

On circulating the oath, the students hoped 100 fellow MBA finalists would sign it. To their surprise, more than half of them did (over 400). Since then, requests to use the oath have poured in from scores of business schools worldwide and the number of signatories has grown exponentially. As the leader of the initiative, Max Anderson, a former theology student, put it: 'Our inbox just exploded'.

Not all responses have been so enthusiastic. Some have dismissed it as naïve idealism that will dissipate as soon as the oath-takers are confronted with the fiduciary duty of managers to maximize profits for shareholders. Whatever the truth of such criticism, the oath represents an attempt to elevate business to the status of a profession and there are good reasons why this ought to be welcomed.

First among these is the notion of calling. In the monastic communities that birthed the universities, the divine call (vocatio) required a human response (professio) that went beyond a profession of faith to include a commitment to excellence in areas of study that would serve humanity. Thus emerged the non-clerical 'professions', such as law and medicine, each with norms focused on service. Ironically, however, the one area of expertise on which all the others relied – wealth creation – failed to be regarded as a proper calling.

In popular perceptions ever since, business has languished as a sphere for amateurs in which service of self, rather than of others, is the ruling norm. While this is reflected in the use made of MBA graduates as scapegoats for the economic crisis, it is heartening that some of them are keen to embrace business as a professional vocation, with all its ethical implications.

Peter Heslam

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  some have dismissed it as naïve idealism that will soon dissipate
some MBA graduates are keen to embrace business as a profession, with all its ethical implications