02/20/2013 10:03 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2013

Sign That Petition or Change What Is Taught?

A petition to urge business schools to add human rights to the MBA curriculum is sitting in my inbox. Are human rights important? Check. Is this a relevant issue for business? For global actors working in large swaths of the planet -- absolutely. Should it be required in business schools? Not so sure.

For a decade, my colleagues have researched the degree to which business schools include topics like the business of human rights. The Beyond Grey Pinstripes program, which ranks business schools based on the whether they teach to issues of "social and environmental sustainability," puts issues like this one on the table. It has data on courses, research and activities for students seeking a business education that takes issues like human rights seriously. But it's time for a new approach if we are to move these topics from the sidelines. Let me suggest a different approach.

What have I learned from ten years in the trenches in business education? Business schools are responding to student demand for courses that consider the social context and social costs of business. 2011, the year of our last survey of business schools, saw a 20 percent jump in the number of courses offered with some ESG-type content. That means more courses that raise questions about environmental factors, like resource constraints, or the social issues, like the call for content on human rights. And this content is making it into the core of the curriculum with greater frequency as well.

But we are also seeing a fundamental disconnect. On the one hand, we find management cases in use that explore the human dimensions of working in parts of the world where social and economic rights are not as secure as there are here at home. On the other hand, the way we teach the basic decision rules about when and how to invest and the metrics that govern go or no-go decisions are devoid of the human or environmental impacts. They are more likely to encourage a manager to externalize these costs than consider them as part of the calculus. Take, for example, the impact of decisions of manufacturers like Wal-Mart and Disney in Bangladesh, where 112 women lost their lives in a horrific factory fire. Or the uproar over labor standards at Foxconn where my iPad was probably manufactured.

Where these issues collide is in the first order questions -- fundamentals -- about the purpose of a business corporation, about the management tools taught, like how and when to apply discount rates to future costs of operation that fail to capture environmental concerns, and competitive and strategic issues, which are considered more in terms of price and speed to market, than to treatment of factory workers.

It is true that companies are being held to new standards, due to web-enabled transparency and the reputation risks for popular brands when things go horribly wrong, but these nuances are largely missing when we teach MBAs the fundamentals about how to measure business success.

Refreshingly, on March 7 to 8, scholars, business leaders and students will meet in a common space to consider some of these same fundamentals. Kellogg School of Management will host a public conversation in Chicago that zeros in on questions of corporate purpose, reputation, and the ways in which corporations shape business policy through lobbying and corporate speech. These topics, and how they are discussed in the training and development of future business managers, are more likely to influence how companies think about their role and responsibilities around the globe than courses that have "human rights" in the title.