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Incorporating Professional Ethics throughout an Accounting Curriculum

Article excerpt

Many accountancy programs wrestle with how to incorporate ethics into their already packed curriculums without compromising their coverage of technical topics. One solution is a modular approach that incorporates ethics alongside the technical course work. Over the past few years, this approach has helped the authors achieve a variety of pedagogical goals related to ethics education without sacrificing the technical content of each course.

Ethics has always been significant for accounting professionals and the constituencies they serve. CPAs have developed a reputation as trusted business advisors, in part due to the general perception that accounting professionals behave ethically. These reputations are not, however, beyond reproach. Recent years have seen the dimming of reputations that took decades to develop and nurture, due to well-publicized lapses in judgment by CPAs in positions of significant responsibility. Not surprisingly, incorporating ethics into accounting curriculums has become a hot topic for accounting programs across the nation.

The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB) has recently reemphasized the importance of teaching ethics to business students. The AACSB's accreditation standards for accounting programs also stress that ethics is a necessary part of a well-rounded accounting curriculum. Accounting programs should emphasize ethics above all other business school programs because accounting students are being trained to enter a profession founded on a code of conduct. A distinguishing characteristic of a profession is the existence of a code of ethics that sets forth expectations regarding the behavior of its members.

While the need to infuse more ethics content into accounting programs is broadly accepted, ethics is only one of the many demands upon accounting curriculums. In addition to the need for strong technical knowledge, the accounting firms have continuously urged that accounting programs help students develop other skills and competencies related to verbal and written communication, teamwork, technology, and problem solving. Accounting educators face difficult choices when designing their courses to cover all these demands, and requirements to add one more area to their courses can be frustrating.

Responding to the call from Jane B. Romal and Arlene M. Hibschweiler ("Improving Professional Ethics," The CPA Journal, June 2004), this article will discuss a modular approach to adding ethics to the accounting curriculum. Depending on how the module is structured, it can take as little as one class period from the essential technical content of the course. The modular approach also achieves a variety of pedagogical goals simultaneously: Students become aware of the ethical standards that govern the profession; they gain a useful framework for evaluating ethical dilemmas; and they have the opportunity to address an ethical dilemma, make an ethical judgment, and defend their decision. Depending on how the module is structured, educators can also foster the development of other professional skills.

What Educators Can Accomplish

At a minimum, incorporating ethics into a curriculum introduces students to the codes of conduct that govern accountants' behavior. While students may become familiar with the AICPA Code of Professional Conduct in their pursuit of CPA certification, they may be unaware of the other, equally important codes of conduct, such as ethical requirements in state and federal laws and regulations, the AICPA Statements on Standards for Tax Services, IRS Circular 230, the Institute of Management Accountants (IMA) Standards of Ethical Conduct, the Financial Executives International (FEI) Professional Ethics, and the Institute of Internal Auditors (UA) Code of Ethics. Exposure to these standards should raise students' awareness of the rules they must abide by during their careers.

It is difficult for students to apply philosophical ethics to real-life situations. …