When the Price of Success is Ethical Lapse


By Yvonne Milosevic

You’ve heard by now about the massive college admissions cheating scandal? In a nutshell, it’s a story of privileged people using wealth/influence to pave the way for their kids’ entry into elite universities. It has ensnared celebrities, CEOs, coaches, counselors and test administrators—the FBI indicted 50 people in the $25 million fraud scheme. By all accounts, this is the most egregious scandal in the history of higher education.

What has many onlookers steaming is that, in some of these cases, the children had zero desire for a higher education. Actress Lori Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade, who started at USC in fall 2018, shared this gem with her social media fan base at the time:

“I do want the experience of like game days, partying. I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.”

Fun fact: Her parents allegedly paid $500K for her and her older sister Isabella Rose to gain admission to USC as recruited athletes for the crew team. A sport neither played.

Out of the 30 parents indicted, two were Stanford MBAs. Three were HBS alums. One graduated from Michigan Ross. And yet another is an alum of the Kellogg School of Management. For more on the ethics issue of whether admissions fraud also exists at the MBA level, follow the story here. But the greater societal question remains unanswered: Why were these parents hell-bent on helping their children achieve success at all costs?


Parents refuse to give up the wheel

These MBA grads, successful by every measure, could have hired legit tutors and consultants to boost their kids’s chances of admission. But these “lawnmower parents”  had little faith in their own children’s abilities. So they decided to game the system instead.  What values and ethics are they passing on to the next generation? What does this say about how b-schoolers define success?

Duke University professor of behavioral economics Dan Ariely thinks being a parent creates blinders “as to what’s moral and not moral.” This article on ethical parenting suggests that someone who would never lie on his or her own résumé may lie on their kid’s school application and feel that “they’re doing something for a good cause, that they’re actually being altruistic.”

When is it too late to learn ethics?

Universities and their business schools have honor codes, and devote millions to centers and initiatives focused on ethics. But now we’re left wondering whether it’s too little, too late.

Professor Jonathan Haidt of NYU Stern School of Business wrote this in The Washington Post a few years back: “After much searching, I have yet to find any evidence that a single ethics class, on its own, can improve ethical behavior after the course has ended.”

Lecturer Walter Pavlo agrees, as his article last year in Forbes, “Business Schools Should Stop Teaching Ethics And Start Teaching Federal Sentencing Guidelines.” made plain.

“The reality is that most ethics training occurs long before students enter business school.  Parents, family, friends, coaches and faith leaders all have a hand in forming the beliefs of our youth,” Pavlo wrote.

The future looks hazy

Business schools should continue to elevate a culture around success in other ways. They can prioritize doing good, being kind, doing the right thing even if it’s not monetarily advantageous. But there’s only so much professors and MBA programs can do on the back end. Perhaps it falls to admissions to more clearly identify applicants who embody the ethics and values to which the schools adhere.

All of us—rich, poor, and in between—need to stop trying to clear away every obstacle for those we care about. Getting caught clearly harmed the children involved in this scandal. But not getting caught would have also been damaging in other ways. Namely, by normalizing this type of behavior in future generations.

How can business schools identify and groom individuals who are driven to success and improving the world without feeling the need to artificially create an upper hand? We’re not sure. But it’s a discussion we should all engage in.