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Turbulence for Boeing: A Crisis of Corporations and Curricula

The EvoLLLution | Turbulence for Boeing: A Crisis of Corporations and Curricula
Paying lip service to ethics programming doesn’t benefit anyone. Postsecondary institutions that prepare and continue to educate professionals must integrate sincere and meaningful education for social responsibility into their curricula.

Boeing has crashed and been burning in the media spotlight for months concerning engineering and business failures that have cost lives, but their influence on higher education should worry us as well.

October 2019 marked the one-year anniversary of an airline tragedy in Indonesia in which 189 people were killed. Five months later another airline accident was linked to flaws in Boeing’s technical design. What does the crisis mean for campus corporate relations, especially the role of the curriculum? How has the volatile, landmark incident impacted American higher education?

We get a first glimpse from Lindsay Ellis’s Oct. 18, 2019 Chronicle of Higher Education story about Boeing’s role in transforming university engineering curricula. It has left us up in the air about ethics, however, which is a dangerous place to be.

That’s because on Oct. 23, The New York Times reported that Boeing fired one of its top executives at the center of the crisis, noting, “The removal is the most direct effort to hold a senior leader accountable.” Then, in early January, a reporter in The Times referred to Boeing as a corporation with a “broken culture.”

The challenge for higher education readers is to reconcile Boeing’s problems of the past year with Ellis’s historical account about how, starting in 1990, “Boeing wanted better Engineers. Higher Education Would Never Be the Same.” What are we to make of this episode of corporations and curricular reform? For 30 years Boeing engineers were persistent and persuasive in changing accreditation and courses of study in engineering programs. Their campaign was successful, but was it a change for the better?

One New York Times article reported that Boeing’s flagship 737 Max aircraft had “systematic design flaws,” which raises questions about the technical quality of their engineering. This was accompanied by reporting about dubious managerial decisions regarding ethical responsibilities. A final irony was that Boeing’s long-term quest to improve their marketing position ended up with plummeting sales and profits in 2019.

Most troubling to us is the uncertainty of Boeing’s professional ethics and responsibility for decision-making. Is Boeing a model for engineering schools and other corporations to follow?

Both Boeing and institutions of higher education profess language of social responsibility in their public statements of their core values. Such proclamations are only words, however, if they are not alive in business culture and in educational practices.

The changes that Boeing brought to bear on higher education, according to Ellis’s reporting, pushed engineering curricula away from theoretical and scientific study and toward practical teamwork on shared endeavors. The “learning by doing” model—attributed to John Dewey’s educational philosophy—was arguably reintroduced as a result of Boeing’s influence. The missing piece that thinkers like Dewey would have insisted upon, however, is the whole point of the educational endeavor, namely the amelioration of public problems and the enhancement of social well-being.

Professional education, such as in law or medicine, is supposed to be aligned with a code of ethics. Lawyers swear to uphold the law and doctors vow to do no harm. What will it take for us to demand a code of conduct for our business and engineering majors? They are typically lumped into the categories of “young professionals,” but what values do they profess?

Business professionals will sometimes have to foreclose on homes. Some engineers will design bombs. Colleges and universities are tasked with educating people who create, wield and manage these powerful tools. Thus, their statements of ethics should matter.

In business education, how much has changed since the calls for ethics education in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis? For example, Joel M. Podolny argued in 2009 in the Harvard Business Review that business schools were to blame in part for the world’s financial collapse. It’s not clear whether things have changed ethically for the better in higher education.

When it comes to engineering, where can we look for guidance? The National Society of Professional Engineers offers a “Code of Ethics for Engineers.” When it comes to business, one might consider the 2004 report, “Ethics Education in Business Schools,” by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International.

These principles can help to reignite the conversation. However, they will do little so long as engineering and business education pay only lip service to such content. The real change we need is for corporations to care more about people’s lives than the bottom line.

As scholars concerned about higher education, we are like Federal Aviation Administration investigators searching for the curricular black box after the crash.

How can a company of engineers with an annual operating budget of $83 billion design a flagship airplane in which a single sensor’s malfunction could result in the loss of hundreds of lives?

Change to business culture as well as to educational institutions will not be quick, but sincere and meaningful education for social responsibility both in business and in engineering are vital if we are going to raise our expectations to new heights.

Among the consequences we can hope for from the Boeing tragedies is an end to the question of whether there is a place for ethics in education for business and engineering.