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Do as We Say, Not as We Do: Teaching Ethics in the Modern College Classroom

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Document pages: 10 pages

Abstract: In the past decade, there has been an increasing level of distress over the perceived lack of ethics exhibited by members of the accounting profession. This distress has resulted in a call for a greater emphasis on ethics coverage as part of a college-level accounting education. However, one could argue that the various organizations that are leading these calls, and the academic institutions which are charged with implementing this enhanced ethical education, often suffer from ethical failings of their own. The purpose of this paper is to examine the degree to which these organizations "practice what they preach. " Recent history is rife with examples of ethical shortcomings on the part of accounting professionals; Enron, Worldcom, and Tyco come to mind as examples which have received extensive media coverage. The resultant public concern over ethics in accounting has led several governmental and professional bodies to mandate or promote codes of ethical conduct. The Congress of the United States, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and other bodies have all made public pronouncements which explicitly insist upon the importance of ethical behavior. Similarly, many education-related organizations (i.e., universities and accrediting bodies) have taken the position that education in ethics is an essential part of any college-level education. Finally, although the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), which formulates generally accepted accounting practices for commercial firms in the United States, has not made an explicit statement regarding the importance of ethics, the standards which they promulgate are the measure of what is and is not adequate financial disclosure. Since a failure to follow generally accepted accounting principles is usually thought of as misleading and hence, an ethical violation, it could be argued that the FASB is, in fact, charged with "codifying " ethical behavior as far as financial disclosure is concerned. All of the organizations mentioned above can be criticized, to some extent, for ethical failings of their own. Political bodies, such as the Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission, can often be accused of bowing to special interests and entities which enforce codes of ethics (whether the AICPA in accounting or the American Bar Association in the legal profession or the AMA in the medical profession) are often justly accused of turning a blind eye to all but the most egregious behavior of their members. The FASB, while ostensibly independent, is also subject to pressures in its standard setting process. Finally, the educational establishment has exhibited ethical shortcomings of its own. These problems run from well-publicized institution-wide problems in discrimination and college athletics down to the individual class and faculty member who engages in less-than-ethical behaviors. The paper will examine the recent ethical failings in business and the resultant calls for greater ethical behavior on the part of the accounting profession. A brief summary of some of the literature related to ethical education and development will then be presented. After this, the behaviors of the various regulatory, standard setting and educational institutions will be examined to determine the extent to which their individual behaviors coincide with their stated positions on ethical behavior and the degree to which these behaviors match the standards that we are encouraged to teach to our students.

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