Board in Class: Students confront ethics in business during simulation

By: ISU Communications and Marketing Staff, ISU Communications and Marketing Staff
November 22, 2010

As Bill Minnis refuted the Indiana State University students sitting around him, he taught the lesson not by drawing on his experience as a college professor, but from his current occupation - president and CEO of a bank.

Minnis interacted with several groups of ISU students during simulated board of directors meetings. The role-play was in a class taught by Bill Wilhelm, coordinator and associate professor of business education, information and technology. The project was designed to teach the students about ethical decision-making in business. In the role-play, Minnis, the real-life president and CEO of Citizens National Bank, acted as a president of a fictitious bank that was purposely misleading investors about risky loan-making practices it embraced to increase profits. The students acted as members of the fake bank's board of directors who had to determine during the meeting the best course of action to take.

"As far as teaching, what we've achieved is giving them an experience that very closely simulated a reality that they will encounter in their careers," Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm created the role-play with visiting professor Sandeep Gopalan, head of the department of law at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. They loosely based the simulation on actions that were allegedly committed by a real bank and its president, Wilhelm said. He added that the case is still under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Wilhelm conducts research on how to integrate ethical reasoning in business classrooms that do not have ethics as the primary focus of the course, and he is studying how the students responded to the lessons. He divided the students in his class into three groups. The first group simply read about the case, studied corporate governance issues and participated in the role-play; the second group was given an additional lecture on using an ethical decision-making framework and the third group received a lecture on organizational biases and heuristics, or external pressures that could influence someone's interpretation of a situation.

The idea of using a decision-making framework and being aware of those influences "and biases is that the analysis will be closer to the ethically correct thing to do, or as close as possible, because in ethics it's not always a win-win situation," Wilhelm said. "You don't always have all winners."

Senior Brandon Henman, a Terre Haute native majoring in finance, was the chairman of the board of directors in the third role-play group. He thought the simulation was a good tool to teach students about ethical decision-making, which he said he hadn't learned much about.

"Ethics in itself is hard to actually put a grasp on," Henman said. "Somebody could be doing something ethically wrong, but if it's not illegal, then there are always arguments for why they did it."

Minnis said that his role was to make students become active participants in the case, not for them to just simply read about the lesson.

"I think when you read a case study, and often what students see in a textbook, the textbook only challenges them to a test of knowing what the textbook says," Minnis said. "In here, the experiential opportunity allowed them, or forced them, to re-enact and to live the case, not just to observe the case."

In October, before the role-plays began, Minnis and George Rogers, chairman of the board for Citizens National Bank, spoke to the students about the work of the bank's board of directors and president. The students then learned a bit more about how boards work through the simulation.

In the role-play, Minnis consistently refuted with the students, at times putting them on the defensive and challenging them to defend their opinions.

"Well, that's offensive!" he asserted to a student sitting several chairs away during the last role-play meeting. "Is what am I doing unethical?"

But he also hinted at the next step they should take. At one point during the final role-play, Minnis mentioned that a student's comment was something that sounded like it should be made into a board resolution.

Sure enough, the third group passed a resolution. During the simulation ISU junior Kelsie Noble, a double major in business management and marketing from Terre Haute, proposed a resolution for the bank to make a statement about the bank's portfolio to refute the misleading statements that the president had made. The board ultimately approved the resolution, despite Minnis' objections.

Noble said after the simulation that she learned a lot about the "intensity of topics and feelings that can occur in a boardroom setting."

"I guess I never realized how strongly some people could feel about certain ideas or proposals, and how much courage it actually took to stand up and say what you thought was right and believed in," Noble said, "even if you were in the minority of the group or alone."

Minnis said that sometimes board meetings vary in the levels of confrontation that members can encounter between each other or the organization's president.

"This is the one group that actually argued with each other a little bit," Minnis said of the third group, "and in a board, it really is not unusual for board members to confront each other and disagree. It is healthy for board members and the president to have a level of confrontation because it promotes sound business practices and decision-making."

He also said that one of his goals was for students to learn about confrontational situations and to be comfortable with them.


After the role-play, Wilhelm had his students write papers to reflect on the project. He hopes that the activity helps students think through future decisions and possible outcomes before taking action.

Noble and Henman enjoyed the role-play. They thought that it brought an additional element to the lesson that couldn't be attained through a lecture or reading a textbook.

"I ‘d much rather get involved in something that's a real life scenario," Henman said, "and I feel like, if you can find a way to incorporate a lot of classes into that, I think It'd be much more beneficial to the learning process of the student."

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Wilhelm-Class-Board-Speakers/DSC3761BoardMemberSpeakers/1037894180_txC22-L.jpg (ISU/Kara Berchem)

Bill Minnis, a former college professor and current CEO and president of Citizens National Bank, speaks to a group of students in class during an October visit. Minnis role-played as the president of a fictitious bank in a simulation for a class taught by Bill Wilhelm, coordinator and associate professor of business education, information and technology.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Wilhelm-Class-Board-Speakers/DSC3778BoardMemberSpeakers/1037894606_EbmwB-L.jpg (ISU/Kara Berchem)

George Rogers, chairman of the board of directors for Citizens National Bank, and Bill Minnis, president and CEO of Citizens National Bank, speak to students in Bill Wilhelm's class. Minnis role-played as a bank president for a simulation that taught students about students about ethical decision-making in business.

Photo: http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/photos/298576256_Rm7Sr-L.jpg

Bill Wilhelm

Contact: Bill Wilhelm, coordinator and associate professor of business education, information and technology, Scott College of Business, Indiana State University, 812-237-2076 or william.wilhelm@indstate.edu.

Writer: Austin Arceo, assistant director of media relations, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or austin.arceo-negrich@indstate.edu.