Making Ethics a Pervasive Component of Accounting Education

Article excerpt

"THERE IS MUCH WORK TO BE DONE TO PREPARE THE NEXT GENERATION OF MANAGERS AND ACCOUNTANTS SO THAT THEY DON'T REPEAT THE TRANSGRESSIONS OF THEIR PREDECESSORS."--PAUL B. MILLER & PAUL R. BAHNSON

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY Is it possible to make our students exude ethics? As Theodore Roosevelt once said, "To educate a person in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society." Though it may sound like a "pie in the sky" goal, instilling a maximum level of ethical values and sensitivity in our students is what accounting educators should be striving for. Even if we fall short, the progress we make can only enhance the ethical orientation of our accounting graduates. This article presents several ideas for self-reflective assignments that can be used in the classroom to enhance the ethical awareness and sensitivity of students. Many of these assignments incorporate news articles, trying to take the bad press accountants have suffered in recent years and get something positive from it. Based on comments taken from student essays and the results of a survey administered to students in the "pre-Enron" era versus the current "post-Enron" era, this reflective approach to raising the ethical awareness among students appears to be working.

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Historically, there have been many calls for increasing the level of ethics education in the accounting curriculum. These calls turned to screams in the wake of the corporate scandals of the past few years. Many of these screams are coming from accounting professors who are increasingly frustrated with the behavior of some accounting professionals. In his opening statement in testimony before Congress, L. Murphy Smith stated that the leadership of the accounting profession, in practice and in academe, has a responsibility to inculcate ethical behavior and personal integrity in practitioners and students. He also believes there is no classroom that does not offer opportunities to foster and teach ethical behavior and integrity as well as the consequences of their absence. (1) Paul B. Miller and Paul R. Bahnson voice concern that professors are failing to generate from their students any commitment to our profession's long-standing duty to do what is right for the capital markets and the greater economy. (2) G. Peter Wilson, former president of the American Accounting Association, said that educators need to increasingly emphasize within the classroom the two values that have long been the mainstay of the accountant's reputation: integrity and professional skepticism. (3)

The first organized push to incorporate ethics into the business curriculum came in 1979, when the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) made ethics education a requirement for students in business education programs. (4) A more specific focus on ethics in accounting education came from the Bedford Committee, which stated, "Professional accounting education must not only emphasize the needed skills and knowledge, it must also instill the ethical standards and the commitment of a professional." (5) Shortly thereafter, the Treadway Commission and the AICPA added their voices to the demand for ethics to become an integral part of accounting education. (6) In 1989, the AACSB increased the emphasis on ethics by requiring ethics to be taught within the major area of study in business programs. (7)

In response to these calls, educators have incorporated ethics into their curricula in a number of ways, often by using textbook cases, case problems, video presentations, and articles from various publications. (8) We've also seen a debate arise about whether ethics can be taught once students reach college age and arrive at our classroom door. Many believe that a person's ethical beliefs are formed at an early age and may be hard to change. H.Q. Langenderfer and J.W. Rockness, however, consider this notion to be unwarranted, noting that education literature supports the idea that people develop their ethics throughout life. …