Increasingly, the major influences in history are neither monarchs nor elected heads of state, but businesses. And given the increasing importance of business, it is beholden on society to consider carefully the ethics by which business actions are guided. From its founding by Dr. W. Michael Hoffman in 1976, the Center for Business Ethics (CBE) at Bentley University has been in the vanguard of the business ethics movement that is transforming the conduct of business and awakening the world to its social impact.
Today, the world economy is in the midst of traumatic changes and confidence in business has been deeply eroded. And yet, despite the problems, over the last four decades, businesses have made great strides in reshaping their policies so as to operate with greater transparency, equity, social responsibility and environmental stewardship. Progress has been dramatic, but the journey has just begun. The following paragraphs highlight some key events and trends in CBE’s history--which chronicles not simply the history of an institution, but reflects the evolution of a social movement.
The Origins of the Center and a Movement (1976 to 1990)
Writing in the Harvard Business Review in 1958, Theodore Levitt stated, “Business must fight as if it were at war. And, like a good war, it should be fought gallantly, daringly and, above all, not morally.” Levitt’s statement captured well the attitude that has persisted to this day — the view that business is a morality-free zone. It was the unacceptability of this outlook that led Mike Hoffman to establish the Center at a time when few had even heard the term business ethics. No sooner had the Center been established than it held the first in a series of ten national conferences on business ethics as a way of mapping the contours of the field. These conferences brought together a roster of national figures as had never before been assembled to affirm a new vision of responsible business, and from these conferences the publication of eleven books followed. Moreover, in order to add empirical flesh onto the theoretical bones, starting in 1980, CBE undertook a series of national surveys aimed at elucidating perceptions of business ethics and its place in the curricula of American universities. To spur the professionalization of the field, in 1980, CBE executive director, Mike Hoffman, together with Thomas Donaldson of Loyola University of Chicago, initiated an outreach to the scholarly community that resulted in the founding of the Society for Business Ethics, the leading academic association in the field.
Given the paucity of quality textbooks at the time, in 1984, Hoffman and CBE research associate, Jennifer Moore, published the first edition of the textbook, Business Ethics: Readings and Cases in Corporate Morality, now in its 4th edition. Then in 1985, the Center established its business ethics library, which remains one of the best collections of its kind. It was with these initiatives that CBE took part in helping to establish Bentley’s deep and longstanding commitment to business ethics. In these and other ways, CBE helped the movement “find its feet.”
Origins of a Movement: A 20-year Perspective of the CBE from 1976-1996
Have we been true to our mission of generating constructive ideas on business ethics, and producing strategies for ethical business conduct?
From Theory to Practice (1990-1995)
During what may be considered the second phase in its existence, CBE sought to reaffirm business ethics as a field that had tangible value for business practitioners. To this end, in 1991, CBE undertook an effort to educate faculty across Bentley’s campus to better integrate ethics into their courses, from marketing to accountancy. This effort was dubbed the “Gadfly Project,” in honor of Socrates whose unflinching commitment to ethics earned him the reputation of a social change agent.
In the autumn of 1991, CBE took a major step in the professionalization of business ethics by hosting a meeting of ethics professionals from a variety of industries. This led to a follow up meeting in which a board of directors was formed, and in early 1992 the Ethics Officer Association (EOA) was established with the Center for Business Ethics designated as the facilitating organization and Mike Hoffman as its founding executive director. Renamed “The Ethics & Compliance Officer Association” (ECOA), it has become the leading association for corporate ethics and compliance professionals.
To open its doors to a broader group of business ethics professionals, in 1991 CBE established a Research Fellows program. Extending this outreach, in 1992, the Center for Business Ethics then launched its Executive Fellows program.
Business Ethics: Reflections from the Center
A 25-year celebration in 2001
If the Center for Business Ethics (CBE) were ever to have a subtitle, maybe it should be: “good things, even grand things, can come from very simple beginnings.”
Spreading the Word and Strengthening the Base (1995 – Present)
In its most recent phase, CBE has been seeking to extend the reach of business ethics to new audiences and strengthen the existing business ethics “infrastructure” so that business ethics will be more readily embraced around the world as well as among small and mid-sized businesses. To this end, CBE started its “visiting scholars program,” which has since hosted dozens of scholars from countries all over the world. Then, in 1995, the Leon Sullivan Scholarship fund was established to support minority students with an interest in business ethics.
In the same year, CBE, in partnership with the ECOA, launched the Managing Ethics in Organizations program, an intensive weeklong course that is one of the foremost executive education programs in business ethics and compliance. Through CBE’s leadership, in 1996, Bentley established the first MBA concentration with a business ethics focus. This was followed, in 1999, with the adoption of the Business and Society Review as the journal of the Center for Business Ethics, which has since become one of the most respected publications of its kind. The Center has also assumed editorial oversight of Blackwell Publishing’s Foundations of Business Ethics series, which includes volumes on many aspects of business ethics from accounting ethics to finance ethics to ethics in information teachnology.
Over the last decade, CBE has increasingly focused its attentions on the internationalization of business ethics. Emblematic of this, the “Gadfly” business ethics education program (mentioned above) was redesigned with funding from State Street Bank as the “Global Business Ethics Symposium,” and the “Global Business Ethics Teaching Workshop.” These programs now reach faculty from around the world, from Indonesia to Ghana. More recently, with this expanded vision of the role of business in society and consistent with Bentley’s membership in the Global Compact, CBE has extended its outreach to invite scholars from Afghanistan and Iraq to study business ethics at Bentley so as to assist in the education of the next generation of business leaders in those countries.
In these and many other ways, the Center for Business Ethics has endeavored to bring business ethics from the fringes of business to its center, not only on the Bentley campus, but around the world.
CBE Celebrates 30th Anniversary in 2006
Three decades of pioneering work and progress could not have been achieved without the inspiration and efforts of the numerous individuals and organizations who have supported CBE.