2008 financial crisis holds lessons for business schools


NEW YORK — Five years after Lehman Bros.’ implosion, USC wants to make sure its newly minted accountants won’t help blow up the world economy.

Required courses at the university’s Marshall School of Business now include accounting ethics. Another new course on accounting rules aims to help future auditors keep land mines, such as toxic investments linked to subprime mortgages, from exploding.

The hope is that future auditors will protect society from market meltdowns like the one in 2008, not just act as dutiful Wall Street bookkeepers.


“They’re not supposed to be helping management cook their books,” said Robert Trezevant, an accounting professor. “They’re also gatekeepers to protect against abuse.”

The USC curriculum changes, which were spurred in part by new state certification requirements, are among academia’s varied responses to Lehman’s demise.

The turmoil sparked by the bank’s failure prompted soul-searching at the nation’s business schools, long a key pipeline of talent for the financial industry. Some of the saga’s leading characters held business degrees, including former Lehman Chief Executive Richard Fuld.

“We failed,” said Mark Williams, a Boston University lecturer who started a master’s course on risk management after Lehman’s demise. “We were actually, truly part of the problem. We didn’t identify these risks earlier enough.”

As half a decade has passed, business schools have altered syllabuses, added courses and amped up attention to ethics. But a simmering debate continues over whether business schools have done enough to mint future business leaders who won’t repeat mistakes that led to the crisis.

Some in academia worry that higher education is missing an opportunity to overhaul curricula.

Many business schools say they were already talking ethics before the crisis. An earlier push to talk about doing what’s right came in the wake of energy giant Enron Corp.’s epic accounting fraud a decade ago, and the savings and loan crisis before that.

The financial crisis, however, yielded a trove of fresh case studies.

The Stern School of Business at New York University, Fuld’s alma mater, has adapted its required course on professional responsibility in the years since Lehman’s collapse.

“The crisis gives us such amazing material on how you can get terrible, terrible outcomes — sometimes not involving terrible people,” said Jonathan Haidt, a specialist in moral psychology who co-teaches the course.

The course begins with some academic introspection: Haidt shows “Inside Job,” a documentary about the crisis that criticizes business schools for their conflicts of interest that contributed to the mess.

Haidt hopes the school will weave ethical lessons not only into first-year orientation but also other required courses such as accounting and management. It’s all part of an effort to combat the mantra that has become central to business culture over the last few decades: the single-minded pursuit of shareholder value.

A case in point could be the subprime mortgage deals that propelled the crisis.

Mortgage brokers and Wall Street traders earned big bucks selling faulty loans and packing them into — it turned out — worthless investments. Their goal was to make as much for their firms as possible.

“That goes to the heart of the problem,” said Jeffery Smith of the University of Redlands, who is a visiting professor at DePauw University in Indiana this year. “They weren’t rewarded on the basis of whether or not those products and services actually produced wealth for society as a whole.”

Lofty ideals may not be at the fore of students’ minds, of course. Business schools often attract those wishing to advance or switch careers. They sell the skills their professors teach, as well as their all-important connections to Wall Street and corporate America.

At the University of Redlands, MBA candidate Mike Freitas got a crash course in the crisis. In a business ethics class, his professor invariably veered discussions to the crisis, the roles of the government, bankers and greed.

“It came up a lot,” said Freitas, 39. “A lot of us really didn’t understand why it all came about.”

Inside Columbia University’s classrooms, faculty responded to the crisis by retooling core classes, amplifying ethics lessons and launching a course about the future of financial services.

Students embarking on its two-year MBA program focus on the General Motors Co. saga as a way to examine how crises erupt. The case gets the spotlight in lessons on leadership, risk management and accounting.

Before its bankruptcy, GM suffered from lackluster sales and stubborn labor costs, noted Columbia professor Trevor Harris, who sat on a committee that mapped out the school’s response to the 2008 financial crisis.

But GM’s downfall wasn’t just about cars and pension costs: GM fell victim to the toxic fuel for the housing bubble too. Much of the company’s pre-crisis profit came not from cars but from subprime mortgages, via its financing arm GMAC.

“Financial crises, and crises within firms, happen frequently — and much too frequently,” Harris said. “Crises arise because we don’t connect these dots.”

It may be tough to get broad consensus among academics to agree on almost anything, especially about what lessons to draw from a complicated global crisis.

“We all want to make sure that it doesn’t happen again,” said Dan Palmon, chair of the accounting department at Rutgers Business School in New Jersey.

Also adding to the challenge to teach the crisis’ lessons is the youth of today’s students. The financiers of tomorrow may have been in high school when Lehman collapsed.

Then there’s the unsettled question of whether ethics education will stick with students once they enter the workforce. Their firms’ cultures may foster bad behavior.

“There’s a limited amount that we can do,” said Joseph Badaracco, who teaches ethics at Harvard Business School. “Are they pushing people into gray areas? Are they winking at people who do things they shouldn’t do? We’re trying to do all we can.”

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Then and now: Key players