Businessweek honors NIU College of Business on fourth roll call of excellent ethics education

Bloomberg Businessweek logoThe Northern Illinois University College of Business has again been recognized as among the best in the nation at providing students with a strong foundation in ethics.

NIU ranked third in Bloomberg Businessweek’s listing of best undergraduate business schools in the nation for teaching ethics. NIU has placed among the top three on the list since Businessweek began evaluating ethics instruction as part of its annual ranking of top business schools four years ago.

In the rankings released in May, only Notre Dame and Brigham Young University placed ahead of NIU.

“We are extremely proud to be ranked so highly, so consistently,” says Denise Schoenbachler, dean of the NIU College of Business. “About 10 years ago we made a decision that ethics education was going to be at the core of what we do, and these rankings validate our success in reaching that goal.”

That decision to emphasize ethics came at the urging of the school’s board of executive advisers. In an era when the business world was rocked by scandals at companies such as Enron and World Com, they asked that NIU, and other business schools, take steps to ensure that graduates left with a solid grounding in ethics.

At NIU, a task force of faculty from the business school tackled the issue and quickly rejected the idea of creating a single class to cover ethics. Instead, they created what is now known as the BELIEF Program. The acronym stands for Building Ethical Leaders Using an Integrated Ethical Framework.

Denise Schoenbachler and William McCoy
Denise Schoenbachler and William McCoy

The approach strives to incorporate ethical lessons across the curriculum so that students learn to recognize ethical dilemmas in all aspects of business and to help them develop a framework they can use to identify and weigh their responses.  Lessons are built around a series of questions students can use to evaluate any ethical dilemma.

“Every day, good people make poor decisions because they never developed those skills or were not given proper tools,” says KPMG Professor of Accountancy Pam Smith, who was part of the core group that created the program at NIU. “We set out to create a system that grooms moral courage and gives students the courage to put their beliefs into action. These rankings make a strong case that we have succeeded.”

Bill McCoy, who now directs the program for the college, credits the success of BELIEF to the dedication of faculty, students and corporate supporters.

“We are fortunate to have a faculty that has bought into the approach and is unified in their commitment to see the program succeed,” McCoy says, noting that 85 percent of the faculty in the college actively employs the tools of the program when ethical issues arise in class. A subgroup of faculty also serve on the Faculty for Ethics Committee, a cross-departmental group that works to expand the program and closely monitors its effectiveness through annual testing and surveys of students to evaluate how well they are assimilating the skills.

Pam Smith
Pam Smith

Students have more than bought into the program; they have also become some of its biggest promoters.

The student organization, Leaders in Ethics and Academic Discipline, assists McCoy in orchestrating a number of activities that reinforce the program’s aims, including operating an annual ethics case competition and coordinating a discussion series that brings corporate leaders to campus to discuss ethics. “It’s a group that includes some of the brightest minds in the college, and they keep things rolling,” McCoy says of LEAD.

Also instrumental to the success of the program has been strong backing from the business community.

The program’s corporate partners, a group that provides speakers, direction and financial support, includes companies ranging from the National Bank and Trust in Sycamore, to corporate giants such as Microsoft, Experian and Caterpillar. They advise the college on the needs of industry, provide speakers for events and classes and offer financial support to the program.

“We are pleased to support the program because it is so unique and so successful,” says David McCoy, vice president and chief financial officer at National Bank and Trust. “Students leave with a useful set of tools, and one that can help differentiate them in the job market.”

Rounding out the Bloomberg Businessweek Top 10 for ethics were the University of Denver, University of West Virginia, Texas, Quinnipiac, Richmond, Tulsa and Texas A&M.

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