It is not often that historic religious figures like John Wesley and Martin Luther find their way into classroom discussions about business. But the writings of Wesley and Luther, along with several other biblical scholars and texts, are required material in one Wake Forest University class this semester, “Christianity, Business and Business Ethics.”
The class represents what Professor of Accountancy Douglas Beets says may be a moral backlash from the next generation of employees in the wake of several major corporate scandals. Beets, who teaches in Wake Forest’s Calloway School of Business and Accountancy, designed and teaches the class. He says that for many businesspeople, a primary difference between business ethics and business morals is a person’s faith.
“Many of today’s graduates have deep religious beliefs, and they may face challenges to those beliefs in the business world,” Beets says. “My goal is to let students see that they can include their faith as a part of who they are in their career.”
The class is one of the university’s many first-year seminars from which students can choose. Professors propose various topics for the classes based on personal and academic expertise. Class size is small; a total of 20 students are enrolled in two sections of Beets’ class this semester.
In one recent class, students debated whether it is morally appropriate, based on the teachings of Christianity, to sell goods for the highest price possible. Beets assigned one group of students to argue in support of the statement, another to argue against it.
Lee Pollard, a freshman from Augusta, Ga., argued that if someone is willing to pay a certain price, it is the seller’s responsibility to gain as much profit as possible. Karen Janke, a freshman from Winston-Salem, said that price should only equal the item’s actual worth. Using illustrations like prescription drugs and concert tickets, the students cited various biblical references that supported both sides.
To Beets, that is the beauty of the class.
“You can argue both sides of many arguments from a faith perspective,” he says. “These students see that faith can be a valid factor in making ethical business decisions.”
Future classes will have students debating what to do when a boss asks for something unethical, learning about the history of ethics on Wall Street, and analyzing now-famous corporate scandals like Enron.
“I know that I will run into moral issues once I am working,” Pollard says. “I hope this class will provide a good foundation for how I will respond to these conflicts when I am in the real world.” “The interactions between faith and business, whether visible or not, are an integral part of everyday life,” adds Janke.
Beets says he chose the Christian perspective for the class because it is the faith with which he is most familiar, but his motivation behind teaching it applies to all students of faith pursuing a business career. He hopes a variation of the course may become part of the Calloway School curriculum in the future. The Calloway School, ranked 25th among all undergraduate business program by U.S. News and World Report, currently offers courses in business ethics.
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