Professor finds ethics can be taught in mainstream business classes

December 15, 2008

One might say Bill Wilhelm was ahead of his time.

As a doctor of education student at Arizona State University in the 1990s, the Indiana State University College of Business faculty member began looking into ways to integrate ethics training into business classes - long before Enron, WorldCom, and Tyco and before most people had ever heard of subprime mortgages.

Now, after years of ethically challenged business ventures making the news, Wilhelm's work has received national attention. He has received two separate grants to continue his research and a description of his work in this area has been published in an international business ethics journal.

Initially, Wilhelm's research focused on a report from the U.S. Department of Labor in the mid 1990s about the skills and competencies, particularly the so-called "soft skills" that students should have upon graduating from high school.

The No. 1 soft skill, according to the report, was honesty.

"That got me interested in researching integrity and honesty and educational approaches on how to successfully teach it," Wilhelm said. "Enron broke after that and all of a sudden business ethics became the hot topic and my area of research became very popular."

In 2005, Wilhelm, an associate professor of business education, was among the first Indiana State professors to receive a Promising Scholars grant, under a program funded by the Lilly Endowment in an effort to attract and retain faculty members with research aimed at solving real-world problems.

Five semesters of research later, in cooperation with other faculty members in Indiana State's College of Business, Wilhelm's research was published in the Journal of Business Ethics Education.

His research found that faculty members who are not specialists in business ethics can effectively integrate moral reasoning in non-ethics business courses, though it requires significant investments of time and effort. Grade incentives for students also are needed.

"The AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business) has come out emphatically that ethics should be taught but they will not say how it should be taught," Wilhelm said. "I'm trying to find a way that professors who are not specialists in ethics can use a simple, intuitive method of teaching ethical reasoning in their classes."

It is 'pretty much a no-brainer' that ethics education is important, Wilhelm said, and it is not something students can learn via osmosis.

'Among the hundreds of research studies on ethical behavior in the professions, there have been studies that show the higher up a person goes in an auditing firm, for example, the more lax his or her moral reasoning stability can become because of the internal pressures to generate consulting revenue in addition to auditing service revenue. That was born out in the Enron debacle because the first company that went down was Arthur Anderson, an accounting and auditing company that had Enron as their major client,' Wilhelm said.

In recognition of the successful early stages of his research that involved other professors in testing the instructional methodology and resources he developed, Wilhelm and his colleague, Al Czyzewski, associate professor of accounting in the ISU College of Business, received national recognition recently as recipients of the Delta Pi Epsilon (DPE) Independent Research Award presented at the November national DPE conference in Chicago. At the same conference, Wilhelm received an almost $6,300 research grant from the Delta Pi Epsilon Research Foundation to continue work on integrating ethical decision-making into undergraduate and graduate courses.

"The next step is to replicate my research in other courses both at ISU and at other universities, and to branch out into other disciplines that are related to business but are not necessarily in the business discipline, such as economics, sociology and political science," Wilhelm said.

Photo: Award winners Indiana State University College of Business faculty members Bill Wilhelm (left), associate professor of business education, and Al Czyzewski, associate professor of accounting, were recently awarded the Delta Pi Epsilon Independent Research Award for their work on integrating ethics into undergraduate and graduate business courses.

Contact: Bill Wilhelm, associate professor of business education, College of Business, Indiana State University, 812-237-2076 or wwilhelm@isugw.indstate.edu

Writer: Dave Taylor, media relations director, Office of Communications & Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3743 or dave.taylor@indstate.edu