How can business schools become more socially responsible?

Research-backed barriers that can hinder a business school's commitment to social responsibility

Institute for Social Innovation

This article is based on research by David Murillo

What is the role of business schools in shaping responsible leaders? Are business schools to blame for the lack of legitimacy of corporate practices such as tax avoidance or excessive risk taking?

The global crisis has given rise to critical voices that call for business schools to accept their responsibility as social institutions and become better attuned to public interests.

Esade Professor David Murillo and Steen Vallentin from Copenhagen Business School reveal research-backed barriers that hinder a business school's commitment to social responsibility in the Journal of Business Ethics.

"There is profound evidence that shows that every time there is a major financial crisis, there is criticism targeting what we teach in business schools – they blame us for the ruthless behaviour and social irresponsibility among the top executives that have caused the crisis," says Murillo.

Every time there is a major financial crisis, there is criticism targeting what we teach in business schools

"Our contribution does not seek to offer a radical solution to eradicate the lack of legitimacy of business schools around the world but rather to establish a more practical guideline with a number of elements that management education can address to become more socially responsible."

A perverse ranking system

The researchers call into question external factors such as the global business school rankings system, which prioritises the salary increase of students among many other factors.

"Harvard Business School temporarily stepped off the Financial Times rankings once and they eventually had to go back in. In other words, rankings make us worse, in a way they force us to be less socially responsible. We are trapped by market dynamics because we are organisations that need customers in order to survive."

Business schools as a business

Business schools are not only academic institutions, they are businesses and as such, they have to meet customers' needs.

"One of the problems of management education is that we have transformed it into an instrumental discipline at the service of externally-driven market forces. For instance, if you tell students what role businesses could play to help remove the thousands of tons of plastic waste that cover the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, they will immediately ask: OK, but how can this be useful for my company?," says Murillo.

Future leaders need to have a vision that goes beyond the specific operations

"This knee-jerk response puts businesses at the centre of all our academic activities and turns a blind eye to the dysfunctionalities that we assume someone else (the government, international organisations, the people) will take care of – even when no one is willing or able to do so."

The findings show that leaders should step out of this short-term thinking process and ponder how their company will be perceived by people and society in general based on their actions.

Businessman on a staircase in Salt Lake City (Photo: Taylor Nicole/Unsplash)

"Future leaders need to have a vision that goes beyond the specific operations and grasp that they have to think outside the box if they are to improve social perceptions of their companies. In management, sometimes you need to do things that may go against your short-term interests to ensure the survival of your company in the long run," says Murillo.

"There is abundant academic research that shows that, even at the individual level, one's personal happiness is not and cannot be sundered from the impact of one's actions in the world. Why not incorporate this holistic view and the idea of social purpose in what we do in business schools?"

More critical thinking

The findings also argue the need for introducing more critical thinking and ethical debate in the classroom, as well as training executive leaders to question the current state of affairs. Yet this is no easy task.

"Although critical thinking aims to save students from alienation by denouncing the power structures that condition their actions, sometimes it may have the opposite effect: it may alienate students who strive for a career in business and who do not associate being pro-business with being anti-social."

Critical thinking is challenged by the conventional concerns that management education should be useful, practical and relevant to the real world, not only to organisations.

"A critical approach to management education may be still perceived as radical, but in many ways it simply emphasises fundamental academic virtues of skepticism and rigorous testing of knowledge claims. We find it imperative for management education to address its own fundamental assumptions, blind spots and limitations, and for responsibility and critical thinking to be more significant concerns in the development of business curricula," concludes Murillo.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.