As a business professor, I am always looking for teachable moments. Moments where a very relevant, very vivid event can make an impression upon my students and point them in the right direction. But today I say: Enough already. No more teachable moments, please.
Volkswagen, my students already know that it is wrong to put software in your vehicles for the express purpose of fooling regulators into allowing your company to sell cars that emit pollutants into the air at least 30 times permissible levels. Congratulations to you for fooling regulators and customers for a time, but my students could have predicted that when you were caught, your value on the stock market would take a massive hit, and it would cost you billions of dollars to repair the cars and pay the fines.
Former hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli, my students already know that it is wrong to buy the rights to a drug and then boost the price for a tablet from $13.50 to $750 thereby raising the annual cost for patients to hundreds of thousands of dollars just because you can. I am certain that the other pharmaceutical companies are thrilled now that your greed has brought unwelcome scrutiny to drug pricing across the board, thereby hammering stock prices of the entire industry.
Johnson & Johnson, my students didn’t need to listen to Steven Brill’s exposé of your illicit marketing of Risperdal to people for whom it was not approved, including children and seniors. They could have predicted that you would have to pay $2 billion or more in penalties and settlements once you were caught, though perhaps they could not have predicted that you would promote the officer in charge of the illicit marketing to CEO.
Stewart Parnell, my students don’t need to analyze the situation for very long to conclude that it is wrong to sell peanuts you knew were contaminated with salmonella just because the delay in getting them out the door is “costing us huge $$$$,” to quote your email to a subordinate. Your acts cost nine people their lives, and I hope during your 28-year prison sentence you reach the same conclusion that my students reached.
Maybe these are not even teachable moments. The greed on display in these cases is so crass, the immorality so overwhelming, that it is difficult to do more in class than set out the facts and then just shake your head. Where is the nuance?
We look to companies and the adults who work for them to provide business students with better role models. Everyone takes cues for behavior from those around them. Dishonesty is contagious. In some countries, wrongdoing has become so pervasive that corruption seems irreversibly rampant. We have not yet reached that tipping point in the U.S., but there are weeks when the situation seems dire. We cannot get to a state in which students feel like suckers for doing the right thing.
Fortunately Volkswagen’s CEO resigned, Shkreli has agreed to roll back the price of his drug, and Parnell showed true, if tardy, remorse at his sentencing. It’s not too late for all of us to do the right thing. Maybe that’s the lesson we should teach now in college business classes.
Robert Prentice is the Ed and Molly Smith Professor of Business Law, faculty director of the video series “Ethics Unwrapped,” and the founding chair of the Business, Government and Society department in the McCombs School of Business at The University of Texas at Austin.
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