Learning to Be Good Business Citizens
“What would you do if you were an employee and had been asked to work in an environment that was unsafe?” Rand Park asks the class of about 65 mostly first-year Carlson School students.
It’s the start of a discussion that covers employment policies and regulations, including anti-discrimination laws, whistleblowing, and grievance procedures. The class watches clips of interviews with the women who inspired the movie North Country, based on the story behind the first class action sexual harassment lawsuit in the United States.
These are the kinds of thorny issues—and relevant ones, particularly in light of the current news cycle—that Park presents to his students in MGMT 1005 Corporate Responsibility and Ethics. It’s one of two required management courses that undergraduate students typically take during their first year at the Carlson School.
And many of those students get their formal introductions to business ethics from Park, the immensely popular senior lecturer in the Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship Department who teaches the majority of the course’s sections.
"I want the students to get excited about the idea that being in business, whether it’s owning their own business or working in a company, has this incredible opportunity."
“There are a lot of kids on this campus that are only hearing bad things (about business),” he adds.
The 75 minutes in Park’s course are a combination of lecture, discussion, small-group activities, videos, live polls, and more, all centered on the delicate balancing act between generating profits and behaving responsibly in the business arena.
“My class is like ‘ripped from the headlines,’” he says. “Something could be in the newspaper and literally I can just bring it in the very next day and say, ‘Here is an example of what we were talking about.’”
That’s not to say the class is merely a reactionary discussion of current events or “a parade of horribles,” as Park puts it. Throughout the semester, students study economics and history, delve into the philosophical theories of Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, read part of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and discuss feminist/psychologist Carol Gilligan’s work on ethics. They learn about the Great Recession and watch clips from The Big Short.
“I tell my students all the time: We’re going to read some primary texts, we’re going to talk about topics. I want you to be educated people,” Park says. “It’s really a liberal arts class in the business school.”
Students might not always recognize the value of the course going in—it is a required class on business ethics, after all. Park says he’s read plenty of course evaluations that contain something along the lines of “I thought I was going to hate this class.”
Count Blake LaBathe, ’17 BSB, among those who were skeptical going in.
“He made a phenomenal class out of curriculum that I wasn’t interested in,” LaBathe admits.
Indeed, Park has established himself as an influential instructor since joining the Carlson School faculty in 2013 after a roundabout professional path. He’s journeyed from a master’s degree in English to a law degree to jobs in public finance, university administration, and fundraising. Along the way, he started teaching courses in law ethics before moving into the business realm.
He is a two-time winner of the Faculty of the Year award during the Undergraduate Program’s annual Business Week, as voted by the students.
“He would have taught to an empty room because he loves what he is teaching so much,” says Mandi Egeland, ’17 BSB.
Finding the ‘right track’
“I think it’s very much a way to set them on the right track and make them aware,” he says. “I’m going to tell you all this stuff, and then the next semester you’re going to be in another (class) and you’re going to be like, ‘Hey, I know about that.’”
And, he adds, the course is a chance to introduce an argument that runs counter to the popular, bottom-line-rules-all narrative about business. There are incentives to behaving ethically, both practical (companies that avoid trouble make more money) and ideological (organizations can and should use their influence to benefit society).
“He was the first person that made me realize that there’s so much good you can do with business,” says Indu Damodar, ’18 BSB. “I came in feeling kind of guilty, because business kids get a bad rap that all they care about is money, but his class and just him as a person opened my mind to (that) there’s so many good things, even if you’re a part of corporate America, there’s so much good that you can do.”