Ethics, Enron, and American Higher Education: An NAS/Zogby Poll of College Seniors

National Association of Scholars

  • Article
  • July 02, 2002

A large majority of this year's college graduates report that their professors tell them there are no clear and uniform standards of right and wrong. A similarly large majority report that they've been taught that corporate policies furthering "progressive" social and political goals are more important than those ensuring that stockholders and creditors receive accurate accounts of a firm's finances. Yet nearly all these students believe that their college studies have prepared them to behave ethically in their professional lives.

In light of the issues about contemporary business ethics generated by the Enron scandal, such opinions raise serious doubt about how well our colleges are doing their job to shape the ethical sensibilities of their students. To be sure, the foundations of ethical education are laid in the home and school. At best, universities can only confirm the lessons taught there. But they can also undermine these lessons by providing sophisticated excuses for succumbing to the temptations of greed and power. The relativization and politicization of ethical standards, plus cynicism about business in general, opens the way for such excuse making.

These responses were elicited in a national survey conducted by Zogby International from April 9th to April 16th. The survey was administered to 401 college seniors, chosen by random. It was commissioned by the National Association of Scholars, an organization of professors, graduate students, and university administrators and trustees who are committed to excellence in higher education. The survey's sampling error is +/-5%. (Margins of error are higher in subgroups.)

The specific findings were these:

1. When respondents were asked "Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree, that your college studies are preparing you to behave ethically in your future professional life? 97% agreed and only 4% disagreed. (Rounding is to the nearest hundred.)

More precisely:

63% strongly agreed
34% somewhat agreed
2% somewhat disagreed
2% strongly disagreed

2. When respondents were given the alternatives listed below and asked: "I will give you several examples of business practices that are generally regarded as good. Based on what you've been taught at college, tell me which one of these business practices would probably rank as the most important?"

38% chose "recruiting a diverse workforce in which women and minorities are advanced and promoted."

23% chose "providing clear and accurate business statements to stockholders and creditors."

18% chose "minimizing environmental pollution by adopting the latest anti-pollution technology and complying with government regulations."

18% chose "avoiding layoffs by not exporting jobs or moving plants from one area to another."

(4% were not sure.)

49% of the women and 58% of the education majors, gave "recruiting and promoting women and minorities" as their most highly rated policy. So too did 49% of students majoring in the humanities and social sciences.

By a plurality of 43%, business and accounting majors accorded "providing clear and accurate business statements" their highest rating, thereby attaching more importance to it than did any other major. But even with this group, a majority of 56% preferred one of the other three alternatives.

3. When respondents were asked, Which of the following statements about ethics was most often transmitted by those of your professors who discussed ethical or moral issues?

73% chose "what is right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity."

25% chose "there are clear and uniform standards of right and wrong by which everyone should be judged."

( 2% were not sure.)

Generally speaking all subgroups were in agreement in their responses to this question. The highest support for "clear and uniform standards" (33%) came from students majoring in science and math. (Students with majors grouped in a "miscellaneous category" also gave 33% of their support to this option.)

Among those student groups that gave the highest degree of support for "the relativistic option" were majors in education or a pre-professional area (85%) and those majoring in the humanities and social sciences (79%).

The second set of interesting findings produced by this survey was the generally low opinion of the prevailing state of business ethics these students received from their professors. Perhaps somewhat paradoxically students seem to be told, on the one hand, that there are no clear ethical standards, and, on the other, that the business world is notably unscrupulous.

4. When respondents were asked: "Based on what you've been taught about these professions in college, in which of the following professions is an 'anything goes' attitude most likely to lead to success?"

28% chose business
20% chose journalism
16% chose law
5% chose teaching
5% chose science/medicine
5% chose the civil service
3% chose religion
2% chose the military
8% chose none
(8% were not sure)

Seniors majoring in the humanities and social sciences (37%), and those with fathers having post-graduate educations (39%), were most likely to point a finger at business. Interestingly, students majoring in journalism tended to put journalism first.

America's graduating seniors also seem to think that Enron represents the rule and not the exception with respect to business ethics.

5. When respondents were asked "do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree, with the following question: the only real difference between executives at Enron and those at most other big companies, is that those at Enron got caught?" 56% agreed and 41% disagreed.

More precisely:

22% strongly agreed
34% somewhat agreed
21% somewhat disagreed
20% strongly disagreed
(4% were not sure)

The highest level of support for this statement (64%) came from pre-professional and education majors. However, it is worth emphasizing that business and accounting majors (57%) were no less likely to think the behavior of Enron executives exceptional than were any other majors.

Surely, there are significant reasons for being concerned with these results.

First, it seems reasonable to believe that when students leave college convinced that ethical standards are simply a matter of individual choice they are less likely to be reliably ethical in their subsequent careers. Unfortunately, three-quarters of our respondents report that this was the relativistic view of ethics they received from their professors.

Second, as desirable as diversity producing, environmentally consciousness, and locally-rooted policies may be for businesses to follow, the effectiveness of marketplace depends most fundamentally on honest dealing among those participating in its transactions. The majority of undergraduates, to say nothing of business majors, don't seem to have learned this in college.

Third, it will be more difficult to recruit ethical people to business careers if colleges give them a low opinion of the level of ethics they can expect to find upon entering those careers. Yet this is just what they apparently receive.

Finally, the relativization and politicization of ethical standards that our universities and colleges have embraced, and the cynicism about business and businesspeople they propagate, raise serious questions about the judgment of many on their faculties, including, apparently, those working in their business programs. If the marketplace provides one of the foundations of America's liberty and prosperity, it's discomforting to realize how little college faculties seem to appreciate its virtues or understand its needs.

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