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Ethics Conference Encourages Business Leaders, Educators to Find Solutions

Business leaders and educators from across the nation recently gathered at the BYU Marriott School of Business for the annual Partners in Business Ethics Symposium. The 2021 conference marked BYU Marriott’s first time hosting the event.

“The design of the conference is to bring together business school deans and executives to discuss what we as educators can do in the classroom to better promote ethical business behavior,” says Brad Agle, the George W. Romney Endowed Professor of ethics and leadership at the Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics at BYU Marriott. “We want to prepare students to enter the workforce as leaders who value integrity.”

Sherron Watkins, a whistleblower for the former energy company Enron, speaks to conference participants about the importance of ethics. Photo courtesy of Sarah Robinson.

Faculty members from BYU Marriott who were in charge of organizing the conference wanted to ensure the sessions were heavily discussion based, inviting everyone to share their ideas for bringing positive change into the classroom. “We designed the conference in a way that encouraged a high level of participation and interaction,” Agle explains. “Most sessions had a facilitator and three or four panelists who initiated discussion among the attendees.”

BYU Marriott Dean Brigitte Madrian, Agle, and Kim B. Clark, former dean of the Harvard Business School and current NAC Professor of Business at BYU Marriott, were hosts of the symposium. Additionally, several faculty members from the Romney Institute served as facilitators, including professor Brad Owens, adjunct professor Barry Rellaford, associate professor Eva Witesman, and associate teaching professor Aaron Miller.

Other facilitators included Lance Bennett, an MBA prep coach; Jeffery Thompson, director of the Sorensen Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership at BYU Marriott; Paul Godfrey, the William and Roceil Low Professor of Business Strategy at BYU Marriott; and two BYU Marriott faculty from the Department of Management: assistant professor Isaac Smith and professor Kristen DeTienne. Panelists included additional faculty from BYU Marriott, deans and professors from other business schools, business executives, and leaders of various organizations.

Jeffery Thompson, director of the Sorensen Center for Moral and Ethical Leadership at BYU Marriott, speaks to his audience. Photo courtesy of Sarah Robinson.

The conference held panels with three high-profile speakers, including two corporate whistleblowers: Tyler Shultz, who exposed fraud at Theranos, a blood testing company, and Sherron Watkins, who found accounting irregularities at Enron, the former energy company.

“Tyler Shultz and Sherron Watkins are probably the two biggest corporate whistleblowers ever, and our symposium was their first time being in a room together,” Agle says. “They both shared fascinating stories and talked about the challenges that came with exposing ethical issues in their former companies.” In addition to speaking to conference attendees, Shultz and Watkins met with BYU Marriott students during a luncheon and spoke about integrity in the workplace.

The third featured speaker was Dale Murphy, a former professional baseball player for the Atlanta Braves and two-time MLB MVP. Murphy spoke during the lunch session on the first day, addressing the subject of business as a profession.

Other symposium panels focused on different topics surrounding the theme of the 2021 symposium, which was “Business Education in a World of Stakeholder Capitalism, Black Lives Matter, and the New Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) Accreditation Standards.” Agle says this theme aimed to capture some of the biggest changes happening in the world of business.

“We wanted to focus on an idea from a 2018 statement by the Business Roundtable, which is comprised of CEOs from the biggest companies in the country,” Agle says. “Their idea was to shift from shareholder capitalism, which is when a company’s primary purpose is to make money for shareholders, to stakeholder capitalism, which brings an additional focus to creating employment opportunities and doing good in the community.

“We also wanted to discuss what business schools should be doing to create a better world in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion,'’ Agle continues. “We live in a time of societal changes. We wanted our attendees to discuss what these changes mean for the business world and the classroom.”

Symposium participants enjoyed both the interactive nature of the panels and learning about the topics that were presented. "The Partners in Business Ethics Symposium was truly educational, inspirational, and enjoyable,” says Örn B. Bodvarsson, dean of the Atkinson Graduate School of Management at Willamette University. “I learned a lot over two days, had the pleasure of meeting and interacting with many terrific colleagues, and came away with crystallized ideas about what I want to do at my own institution in the areas of corporate social responsibility, stakeholder capitalism, and related topics.”

The conference sessions and panels were held on October 14–15, 2021. The first day of the conference took place at Aspen Grove, a property owned by BYU in Provo Canyon. “We weren’t worried about snow before the conference, because who worries about snow in mid-October?” Agle says. “As the day approached, the weather reports predicted snow and the coldest day of the month. Luckily, the weather wasn’t bad; we just had a light cover of snow. The setting could not have been more perfect—I felt like I was in a Hallmark movie. Our attendees loved their experience at Aspen Grove.”

The second day’s sessions were held in the Tanner Building. In total, the symposium had 11 breakout sessions. Attendees of the conference expressed that the panel topics were thought provoking and sparked discussions about change. “Since the conference ended, I’ve had conversations with participants about the subjects presented at the conference,” says Agle.

Audience members at Aspen Grove listen attentively to the speakers. Photo courtesy of Sarah Robinson.

“Our symposium prompted attendees to think about different issues in business ethics and how they can address these issues, which was our goal when planning,” he continues. “We hoped attendees would continue talking about these issues outside of the conference. Since that seems to be happening, I would say we accomplished our main goal.”

Attendees of the symposium left the conference looking forward to causing change in the classroom. “The conference prompted me to think about how the next generation of business leaders will value ethics in their organizations,” says McKenzie Rees, assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources at BYU Marriott. “The topics we discussed at this conference will hopefully be implemented by business school leaders moving forward and shape the conversation around ethics for years to come.”

The Partners in Business Ethics Symposium was first held in 2010 and hosted by the Penn State Smeal College of Business and American Express. Each year, a different school is asked to host the symposium. The conference brings together business school deans, thought leaders in business, and corporate leaders who are passionate about ethics and its community impact.

The first time faculty from BYU Marriott attended the symposium was in 2018, when the University of Illinois hosted the conference. Madrian and Agle talked to several people at the conference who asked them to host the symposium in the future. “This conference was absolutely fantastic, and I’m so glad that we embraced the chance to participate,” Agle says.


Writer: Sarah Calvert