JY Lee | A plea for integrity
Wandering Curious Lee | How the Wharton administration can save us from the business school’s ethical crisis
October 17, 2013, 9:32 pm · Updated October 17, 2013, 11:48 pm·
Wandering Deliberate Lee
What’s wrong with Wharton?” asked the Sept. 27 headline of a Wall Street Journal article. While the article focused on Wharton’s dimming prestige, our more pernicious plague is the eclipse of ethics.
Wharton alums have set several world records during my time here. In addition to the Forbes’ net-worth list, our alums also top the list of largest frauds.
In 2011, Galleon Group founder and hedge fund manager Raj Rajaratnam, the world’s then-richest Sri Lankan, was found guilty on a combined 14 counts of conspiracy and securities fraud. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison, the longest sentence ever for insider trading.
This year, 1978 Wharton graduate Steven Cohen, once crowned the “Prince of Wall Street” by The New York Times, may overshadow Rajaratnam’s record. His hedge fund, SAC Capital Advisors, is currently in negotiations with federal prosecutors and is expected to end up making a record plea bargain — potentially up to $2 billion.
Are Cohen and Rajaratnam occasional “bad apples” among Wharton graduates “winning” on Wall Street? I would like to believe so, but my Wharton Senior Capstone class leaves me cynical.
During a four-day business simulation this past January, which involved 64 seniors divided into eight teams, one team got busted for attempting to engage in price-fixing with another team, idiotically using the simulation’s messaging system. If my classmates had no qualms about flouting rules in a half-credit pass/fail class, I fear where they will draw their moral lines when millions are on the line.
So how should we explain these ethical lapses?
Riding down the escalator in Huntsman Hall between accounting and finance classes, I feel like a product on an assembly line in a tool factory. Like the investment bankers it impregnates, the futuristic building never sleeps and feeds off an army of blue-collar workers.
Perhaps it was this sense of alienation that once spurred me to join Occupy Philly, which stormed Huntsman Hall in 2011. While I have become more moderate in my ideological orientation, I believe the same sense of detachment from ourselves and others has precipitated the downfalls of these financial titans and my classmates.
Just as the first economist, Adam Smith, was also a moral philosopher, Wharton should require more instruction in moral reasoning before giving out a BS degree in economics. In contrast to the humanities classes that animate hearts and minds, many business courses — especially those in the mandatory core curriculum — are regurgitations of lifeless information crammed into our craniums.
Although some business professors such as Adam Grant and Anne Greenhalgh devote an almost parental dedication toward students, it is hard to connect our learning to our lives when classrooms are cramped with over 50 students and the syllabus is jammed with technical material. Hence our business knowledge becomes disconnected from our body and soul, and we carry the same disconnect to our corporate jobs where our moral sensibilities continue to wither away.
In addition to our studies, we have also become estranged from our communities. Until I biked across middle America and witnessed countless ghost towns wasting away without jobs, I could not visualize the impact that outsourcing and the financial crisis had on working-class Americans. Does Wall Street view un-unionized laborers on Main Street as more than pawns in its game of chess?
My Wharton classmate, whose investment banking job demands his anonymity, spent his junior summer working at a paint factory in China to experience the lives of the proletariat, gaining a first-hand perspective on the exploitation of migrant workers. SciencesPo, a prestigious French university that offers an exchange program with Penn, requires a manual labor internship for graduation. Wharton would enrich our leadership, ethics and awareness with a similar requirement.
Coincidentally, Wharton contains the words “war” and “art” in its name. It seems that “war” has become the dominant metaphor for business at the expense of integrity as a zero-sum mindset has become increasingly pervasive. If we could shift our paradigm to “art” that nourishes our minds and bodies through the exchange of ideas and goods, perhaps our alums will have fewer reunions in jail.
JY Lee is a fifth-year College and Wharton senior from Gangnam, South Korea. His email address is email@example.com. “Wandering Deliberate Lee” appears every other Monday. Follow him @junyoubius.