Occupy Wallstreet in the Classroom

The global protest movement has students and profs asking tough questions about traditional corporate models.

Occupy Vancouver | BCBusiness
Protestors near Robson Square during the Occupy Vancouver movement.

The global protest movement has students and profs asking tough questions about traditional corporate models.

Decrying the gap in the U.S. between the wealthy few and the struggling masses, the Occupy Wall Street protests began on September 17 last year with just 1,000 marchers rallying in the streets of New York City and mushroomed into an international phenomenon with “occupations” in more than 1,500 cities. The movement caught the attention of business schools, whose MBA programs seek to produce tomorrow’s business leaders – and potentially members of the maligned “one per cent.”

“Universities all across the world were paying attention to it to understand what it means,” says Pedro Marquez, dean of the Faculty of Management at Royal Roads University. “We know that Occupy Wall Street could be and is likely to be part of a larger change in society that is demanding greater corporate responsibility. We also know that capitalism is a dynamic structure . . . and this could represent some of the features and characteristics of the new stage or form of capitalism.”

While Royal Roads hasn’t modified its MBA course content, the Occupy movement has spurred discussions in courses on strategic management, ethics and corporate responsibility and the context of business. “It is a very easy topic to use to trigger discussion,” says Marquez, “and it’s been a wonderful opportunity for us to emphasize economic management.”

The movement also adds greater consequence to debates pitting Milton Friedman’s argument for “profits first” against the philosophy of the triple bottom line. “Before Occupy Wall Street, we still had these same conversations, but they had a bit less meaning because they were more theoretical and philosophical about what is right and what is wrong,” says Marquez. But as an international phenomenon with plenty of media coverage, the Occupy movement serves as a concrete, real-life example of society’s reaction toward hard-nosed capitalism. “And this, of course, always leads to the discussion of how capitalism is evolving and what is [students’] role as future managers in Canada and the rest of the world,” Marquez adds.

Occupy Wall Street has been as much a lesson to schools as to their students, says Marquez: “More than ever, business schools have discovered that models that we have taught in the past might not necessarily be useful to describe and understand reality in the beginning of a new century or a new decade.”

One of the new business models fast gaining relevancy and class time is the so-called “B Corp” model, short for “benefit corporation.” A benefit corporation is one that builds social responsibility into its constitution, says Vancouver Island U instructor Paul Kurucz. There are now more than 500 certified B Corps in North America, 33 of which are in Canada, and benefit corporation legislation has been adopted in seven U.S. states since Maryland took the plunge in April 2010. Says Kurucz, “A lot of organizations are taking it on and saying, ‘This is how we want to operate . . . . We can not only do what’s right, but we can do it strategically.’”

Although the benefit corporation model has been around for a while, recent months have seen it feature more prominently in class discussions. Students “know that systemic change is coming,” says Kurucz, pointing to the increasing levels of debt in the U.S. and other western countries as primary indications. ”But what the students are concerned about and interested in is what is going to change structurally.”

Not all business-school programs felt the impact of the Occupy movement. Raymond Cox, director of the MBA program at UNBC, saw little impact at the Prince George campus and is skeptical of its enduring influence. He says that corporate social responsibility “was a fad” during the economic slowdown of the 1970s, faded in the ’80s and ’90s and has resurfaced in recent years. “I guess when things aren’t going well, economically speaking, then chasing the almighty dollar starts to lose some of its lustre,” he notes. The Occupy movement had little impact on classroom discussions at UNBC, due mostly to demographics, he says: the UNBC MBA program attracts students averaging older than 40. Although he doesn’t see it in the immediate future, Cox believes a spurt in GDP growth would undermine the movement, “so I guess the sooner the economy improves, the quicker the Occupy movement will more or less go away.”

Back at Vancouver Island U in Nanaimo, Paul Kurucz teaches courses on corporate social responsibility and global context for Victoria Island U’s MBA, a full-time program that attracts a mostly under-30 demographic and a significant proportion of international students. He sees the worldwide Occupy movement as a natural topic to spark discussion in the classroom and one that resonates strongly among his students. As part of a class project, students were asked to research Occupy Wall Street and debate the merit of the protestors’ position. “It’s interesting because, for the first time, students are identifying that there are moral and ethical issues here, and it’s not sitting well with them. They are disturbed by the system itself because it is one that needs to change and that’s not something they ever considered,” says Kurucz. The resulting discussions question what responsibilities corporations have on a moral and ethical level and how they are compatible with the reality of operating a business, he adds.

Discussions can be passionate, and older students are often less comfortable with abandoning the status quo – “they’re in the system and need the system,” explains Kurucz – and younger students are eager to be part of the change: “It’s more personal to them because they feel they’re inheriting the world that’s coming up.”