By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—In 2001, when employees of the firm Arthur Andersen were found guilty of obstruction justice after shredding financial documents implicating them and their client, Enron, in possible federal crimes, several business students at IU Southeast reached out to Linda Christiansen.
“You are clairvoyant!” they said, more or less in unison.
Not clairvoyant. Just sanguine.
Christiansen, now professor of business, had been teaching ethics and accounting, where she sought to make students aware of the murky ethical universe in which accountants often found themselves, sometimes with dire consequences to themselves and their firms.
While Enron is now a fading memory, reforms enacted in its wake define the accounting industry, and the questions raised by its rise and demise are still central to the practice and culture not just of accounting, but of business in general.
In her business ethics courses, Christiansen guides students across a thematic terrain filled with land-mines, snakes, leg-hold traps, and quicksand, and challenges them to redefine their role in their careers and their lives.
The classroom as life, and vice versa
In teaching courses that combine accounting, law and ethics, Christiansen draws upon a rich background in and out of the classroom.
By the time she came to IU Southeast as an adjunct in 1992 to teach accounting and business law, she had already earned a CPA certification and graduated from law school. She had worked as a tax attorney, consulted in areas of tax practice and business valuation, and taught accounting at a law school and community college, tax at the Internal Revenue Service and both at a four-year university.
And even though she moved quickly up the ladder from adjunct to full professor at IU Southeast, she never left the business world completely; today she still does ethics training for professionals, consults in areas of tax, accounting and forensic accounting.
“The real business world has been part of everything I have done here since day one,” Christiansen said.
Her deep and first-person insight into the current realities of the business world infuses her pedagogy in numerous ways, just as her academic work has given her a deeper understanding of business.
This feedback loop is illustrated by her most ambitious project, the Journal of Business Law and Ethics Pedagogy, published by the Academy of Legal Studies in Business, which is now putting out its third issue.
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Christiansen’s varied and deeply reflective experience has led her to an insight that frames the value-add of her courses.
“There are universal rights and wrongs, but there are also so many value judgements that people have to figure out on their own,” Christiansen said. “We do talk about philosophy in these courses, but if you really want a purely philosophical discussion, you have to go to another part of campus—at the end of the day this is an applied business ethics course.”
With classrooms composed mostly of working adults who want to move forward in their careers, this is initially reassuring. Then challenging. And ultimately empowering.
In Christiansen’s world, ethical dilemmas—“damned if you do, damned if you don’t”—are pervasive.
Like antimatter, they constitute the bulk of our situational universe on a daily basis, though they can be unrecognizable to the untrained eye.
Her pedagogical goal is to train that eye.
“You can’t make an ethical choice if you don’t recognize the dilemma,” Christiansen said.
In the first session, Christiansen asks students to name all the qualities they value in themselves and others.
The white board fills with terms: fair, kind, supportive, loyal, honest, compassionate, ad infinitum.
Then she divides the class into small groups and asks each to devise a workplace scenario in which a person cannot exhibit two of these traits.
There is no dearth of responses.
“In fact, I have trouble shutting them up,” Christiansen said.
That’s because the students have encountered these situations countless times in their occupational or educational careers.
Getting past the angst
It’s a sobering moment that usually causes many students to suddenly see dilemmas everywhere.
That can produce a fair amount of angst, according to Christiansen.
“Awareness without some kind of processing, some ability to work through these things, will make you miserable,” Christiansen said. “The scales fall from your eyes, and all of a sudden you’re seeing more, but you have no way to deal with it.”
Her next step moves students from recognizing dilemmas to developing real techniques for analyzing and making choices.
Divided into groups, they identify and select dilemmas from the Wall Street Journal. They then explore different theories and models that provide varying perspectives, building the case for a “mini-conclusion.” The students engage in intensive peer review, both within and among groups, reinforcing skills and developing new angles of analysis.
Christiansen delivers feedback on all contributions, without exception, and students incorporate that into the next level of conversation. She assesses students not on their choice between ethical options, but on the quality of their analysis.
“If it’s a real true ethical dilemma, there is no right answer,” Christiansen said. “There is only righter and wronger.”
Final projects build on the semester’s work. Once again students select a real-world case, find ethical values in conflict, list options, as before. This time they take on a persona, such as the CEO, and build a conclusion based on that person’s role, interests and responsibilities.
Pedagogically, it’s flipped, active, real-world, reflective—but those techniques take on new relevance when the classroom is filled with working adults who confront these very dilemmas every day.
Christiansen is well aware of the stakes, and conscious of the responsibility resting upon her shoulders.
Beginning at the end
The events surrounding the collapse of Enron did more than solidify Christiansen’s street cred as a reader of tea leaves.
They gave ethics a more prominent place in business education, including in accreditation bodies like the AACSB, which certifies the School of Business at IU Southeast.
Enron changed the business and accounting environment. There are more levels of scrutiny now, greater attention paid to potential conflicts of interest. But ethical dilemmas will always arise, because humans still have free will.
This is the delicate and contradictory world Christiansen wants her students to be able to succeed in.
So this is where she begins—not with a massive curriculum and a schedule for feeding it to students so they can satisfy a syllabus, but with the image of an autonomous, analytical and accountable actor.
“I start with the end product,” Christiansen said. “What do I want them to be? How do I want them to think? What skills and knowledge do I want them to have—growth, maturity—after they leave me at the end of the semester?”
The answers emerge through a pedagogical structure that, for all its radicality, ultimately hews to Bloom’s taxonomy: building awareness of dilemmas corresponds to Bloom’s knowledge and comprehension; group projects, discussions, testing and assessment satisfy the criteria for application and analysis; and changes in behavior result from evaluation and synthesis.
“They should get to a point at which they not only to react well to ethical dilemmas, but become proactive in ethics,” Christiansen said.
In a business context, this means being a leader whose deep knowledge allows her or him to anticipate and prevent disasters from happening in the first place.
“Hopefully you create an atmosphere where the dilemmas don’t arise in the first place.”
As a consequence of numerous “wronger” choices and a subsequent cover-up, Enron ceased to exist. Its executives did time, and their names became fodder for late-night comics. Arthur Andersen went into steep decline, and several of its leading lights also traded pinstripes for orange zipsuits. From nearly 2,000 employees during its heyday, it now boasts 200 clerical pallbearers facilitating the firm’s legal dissolution.
The lesson is stark: ethics matter.
It’s a lesson that Christiansen drives home through an integrative approach, by selecting case studies and assignments from various fields of business, so that students come to recognize that dilemmas are lurking everywhere.
This may be the most consequential of her innovations, as it challenges students to take a broader view of their own field, and to hold themselves accountable regardless of conflicting pressures.
“Law and ethics isn’t a separate area of business, it is a part of every business, and you’d better be baseline-knowledgeable in ethics because it impacts every other area.”