Financial crisis holds lessons [Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA)]
(Telegraph-Herald (Dubuque, IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Five years after Lehman Bros.' implosion, the University of Southern California wants to make sure its newly minted accountants won't help blow up the world economy.
Required courses at the university's Marshall School of Business now include accounting ethics. Another new course on accounting rules aims to help future auditors keep land mines, such as toxic investments linked to subprime mortgages, from exploding.
The hope is that future auditors will protect society from market meltdowns like the one in 2008, not just act as dutiful Wall Street bookkeepers.
"They're not supposed to be helping management cook their books," said Robert Trezevant, an accounting professor. "They're also gatekeepers to protect against abuse."
The USC curriculum changes, which were spurred in part by new state certification requirements, are among academia's varied responses to Lehman's demise.
The turmoil sparked by the bank's failure prompted soul- searching at the nation's business schools, long a key pipeline of talent for the financial industry. Some of the saga's leading characters held business degrees, including former Lehman Chief Executive Richard Fuld.
"We failed," said Mark Williams, a Boston University lecturer who started a master's course on risk management after Lehman's demise. "We were actually, truly part of the problem. We didn't identify these risks earlier enough."
As half a decade has passed, business schools have altered syllabuses, added courses and amped up attention to ethics. But a simmering debate continues over whether business schools have done enough to mint future business leaders who won't repeat mistakes that led to the crisis.
The financial crisis, however, yielded a trove of fresh case studies.
The Stern School of Business at New York University, Fuld's alma mater, has adapted its required course on professional responsibility in the years since Lehman's collapse.
"The crisis gives us such amazing material on how you can get terrible, terrible outcomes - sometimes not involving terrible people," said Jonathan Haidt, a specialist in moral psychology who co-teaches the course.
Haidt hopes the school will weave ethical lessons not only into first-year orientation but also other required courses such as accounting and management. It's all part of an effort to combat the mantra that has become central to business culture in the past few decades: the single-minded pursuit of shareholder value.
A case in point could be the subprime mortgage deals that propelled the crisis.
Mortgage brokers and Wall Street traders earned big bucks selling faulty loans and packing them into - it turned out - worthless investments. Their goal was to make as much for their firms as possible.
"That goes to the heart of the problem," said Jeffery Smith, of the University of Redlands, who is a visiting professor at DePauw University in Indiana this year. "They weren't rewarded on the basis of whether or not those products and services actually produced wealth for society as a whole."
Lofty ideals might not be at the fore of students' minds, of course. Business schools often attract those wishing to advance or switch careers. They sell the skills their professors teach, as well as their all-important connections to Wall Street and corporate America.
At the University of Redlands, MBA candidate Mike Freitas got a crash course in the crisis. In a business ethics class, his professor invariably veered discussions to the crisis, the roles of the government, bankers and greed.
"It came up a lot," said Freitas. "A lot of us really didn't understand why it all came about."
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