Sy Syms Course Delves Into Complex Ethical and Moral Challenges Facing Modern Business Leaders
As the CEO of a pharmaceutical company, which is more important: making the company as financially successful as it could be or ensuring that its life-saving products are as high-quality and accessible to as many people as possible?
It’s a question whose ethical and business implications have been debated endlessly in the news, most recently in relation to Mylan’s alleged Epi-Pen price gauging. Where it is less often discussed, however, is in the classroom, where business students absorb and hone the skills they’ll need to thrive in the marketplace.
A new class at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business seeks to equip students to grapple with the moral and ethical dilemmas they will face as leaders in the business world by training them to consider what their responses to these kinds of value clashes might be before they arise in their own lives. Called Business as a Human Enterprise, the Sy Syms Honors Program course—taught by Dr. Moses Pava, dean of Sy Syms—explores concepts like the purposes of modern corporations, corporate social responsibility and accountability in an increasingly connected world, and how to develop a realistic approach to the business environment without succumbing to cynicism.
“Typically, business faculty will tell students that you have to look at the world the way it really is and make decisions based on that,” said Pava. “But that leaves people’s values out, and I don’t think you can do that—people always, instinctively look at situations through their own sets of values. We’re trying to make students conscious of what those values are and how they will impact students’ interpretation of things that come up in their business careers.”
Business as a Human Enterprise is one of several classes on topics related to Jewish values in business offered at Sy Syms; students take it in the first year as part of the school’s unique ethics-driven approach to business education. “When you’re studying business, everything seems like it’s quantitative, formulas, ROI,” said Pava. “I want students to know even before they get too involved in those other courses that business is a human enterprise and it’s an opportunity for them to think about their own values, and how their values may be tested in business.”
To that end, the course includes a focus on how to identify and choose actions consistent with a set of values, as well as how decisions in what Pava calls “defining moments” help shape a person’s moral and ethical character through the analysis of real-world case studies. One famous example the course studies is the actions of former Malden Mills CEO Aaron Feuerstein ’47YC following a catastrophic 1995 fire that destroyed his factory. Rather than moving the company overseas, Feuerstein chose to rebuild the factory in Malden Mills and continue to pay his employees their full salaries.
The move, while lauded by many as heroic, cost Feuerstein $25 million as well as his position as CEO, and led the company to file for bankruptcy just six years later.
“It might seem surprising, but the most difficult questions our graduates will encounter in the workforce won’t necessarily have to do with complex mathematical equations,” Pava said. “We want to teach students that business is about more than just the numbers. Your partner who you collaborate with for decades, your employees, your customers—these are flesh-and-blood people. When you fire someone, it can’t just be about the bottom line—the human element has to be a consideration.”
In the course, students envision and walk through their own defining moments to simulate how they might navigate a crisis in the driver’s seat of an organization.
“I want our students to think carefully about the professions they’re going into, the kinds of companies they’re going to work for and what kind of products they’re providing, to evaluate if those things embody the values they believe in,” said Pava. “It’s partly to get students thinking about their own futures, but also to help them realize that business is interconnected with other activities—for instance, politics and medicine—and that impacts all kind of things. Especially as our graduates move up the ladder, the decisions they make can effect the entire organization they work for and even make a national impact.”
Pava conceived the idea for the course after attending the Aspen Undergraduate Business Education Consortium, whose goal in part is to explore new avenues of integrating liberal arts and business studies. His class is taught in a blended format on both the Wilf and Israel Henry Beren Campus, with students viewing lectures online and meeting in-person once a week, which gives Pava the opportunity to incorporate their questions and feedback into the class as it moves forward.
For Leah Feygel, a senior majoring in finance, one of the course’s most powerful messages was that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to living an ethical life in the workplace—in fact, there’s no universal definition of what an “ethical life” even describes.
“For me, it was important to realize how crucial it is that our perspective on ethics be constantly evolving,” she said. “I learned to examine my mindset, challenge my beliefs and continuously think about how my actions correlate with those beliefs and my commitment to the Torah. There were times when I was forced to acknowledge a shift in my own mindset, which demanded change and growth, and this, I believe, is fundamental to living a good and ethical life that’s also grounded in reality.”
“One look at the front cover of the New York Times is all it takes to realize why a course like this is so crucial,” said Mark Weiss, a junior in the honors entrepreneurial program majoring in accounting. “A business education normally teaches you how to read a balance sheet, maximize profits, and figure out a company’s present value, but the moral ramifications of our actions aren’t in the spotlight. This class provides a new way of thinking about business.”
For Weiss, the idea of confronting what Pava calls “right versus right” situations—where both courses of action have serious and persuasive reasoning behind them—was especially helpful. “Many times in the past when faced with these kinds of situations, I ended up feeling like I made the wrong choice,” he said. “By using the framework Dean Pava taught us, I feel I will have a better success rate with these kinds of situations in the future.”