Summer Chilling

By Torri Still / September / October 1998
November 24th, 2007
Summertime: The temperature has hit the mid-nineties, the air is heavy and still, and Frisbee players hop over sunbathers on the Green. In the air-conditioned Rockefeller Library, however, it feels more like winter break than summer vacation. Nine students clad in jeans and sweaters scurry down to a basement classroom, soda cans and candy bags hidden in their backpacks, and their arms loaded down with books. While their peers sip Del's lemonade 100 yards away, these students will spend the next three hours in a claustrophobic, cinder-block classroom, whose temperature one student describes, only half-jokingly, as "subarctic."

Three times a week for six weeks, these summer-session students sit with their instructor, philosophy graduate student Jim Taggart, around a long, rectangular table and discuss the ethics of business - sexual harassment, whistle-blowing, hostile takeovers, and other knotty issues from corporate America. Although the class, Business Ethics, is offered by the philosophy department, it could just as easily fit into such concentrations as economics or organizational behavior and management (OBM).

It is certainly appropriate that future investment bankers, corporate lawyers, and management consultants spend time reflecting on the moral complexities of business decisions, but this is the summer.

Why would students choose to sign up for classes when most of their friends are soaking up rays on the beach, trekking in the Grand Tetons, or sensibly working at a company that might one day offer up a job? The simple answer is they had no choice. For students who have taken time off from school - either voluntarily or on orders from the University - summer school is the best place to play catch up and accumulate one or two credits toward the thirty needed to graduate. A few of the students in Business Ethics, in fact, participated in graduation exercises in May; receiving a diploma was contingent upon successfully completing this course.

Though their decision to enroll in Brown's summer session may not have been an exercise in free will, most of the students are trying to make the most out of a less-than-ideal situation. "I actually love being here in the summer," says business economics concentrator Laura Cyr '99, who took a year and a half off from Brown. "You can always get a computer at the C.I.T., and I enjoy focusing on just two classes." Many of her eight Business Ethics classmates mention this same upside to being stranded on campus for half the summer: the classes are far more intimate than those taught during the academic year. "I've never taken a class with fewer than fifty people," Cyr notes. In such large classes, she says, speaking up has "been a real challenge." In Business Ethics, which is conducted as a seminar, offering an opinion is de rigueur. There is nowhere to hide.

To the best of Jim Taggart's knowledge, Business Ethics has been taught only once at Brown in the past decade - and not at all in recent years, no matter what the season. "Brown has a strong emphasis on bioethics," he says, "but not on business ethics. As a sub-field of philosophy, it's only been around since the late 1970s." Given Taggart's background, it is not at all surprising that he should be the one to resurrect the course. After graduating from Northwestern in 1986, Taggart attended law school at the University of Chicago, then practiced bankruptcy litigation in Seattle at Preston, Gates & Ellis, the firm that would later take Starbucks public. The experience, he says, "was my source of knowledge about the workings of the business world." While working at the law firm, Taggart took philosophy classes part-time at the University of Washington. Gradually, he became more and more uncomfortable with his day job. Law as a profession, he felt, was turning into law as a business. In 1993, he left the legal field entirely to enroll in Brown's graduate philosophy program.

Taggart, a soft-spoken man whose slivers of gray hair are the only physical evidence that he's older than his students, has served as a teaching assistant for Ethics and Public Policy, Existentialism, and several other classes. This is the first time he has officially taught a course on his own, but his confidence was given a boost, he says, by his having experienced much of the material as a lawyer. Taggart's aim in Business Ethics is to go beyond the presentation of case studies and their legal implications. "I wanted to give them both the framework and facts for critically analyzing issues," he says. "If, for example, they're reading a newspaper article on sexual harassment that says the Supreme Court has a new test for deciding what constitutes harassment, I want them to read it critically."

Sometimes the timing between what's happening within the concrete bunker in the Rockefeller basement and what's happening outside is uncanny. Twenty-four hours before the Supreme Court issues a ruling clarifying guidelines for what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, the students of Business Ethics are discussing this very issue. After reminding the students of the difference between the legal definitions of two varieties of sexual harassment - quid pro quo and "hostile environment" - Taggart opens the floor to discussion.

"What about having a picture of a woman in a bikini in your cubicle?" Taggart asks the class, trying to jump-start the discussion. "Is that sexual harassment?"

"Depends what the woman looks like," deadpans one of the students.

Such exchanges are common in Business Ethics. The reading load is heavy - especially for a class that meets on three consecutive days and therefore demands nightly reading - and the students frequently mask their failure to complete the assignments with banter designed to forestall the discussion. They've become comfortable enough with one another to dispense with polite classroom politics; no hands are raised in Business Ethics, and students often interrupt one another. This informality puts everyone at ease, and all nine of the students regularly participate in the discussions. On the other hand, the debates occasionally resemble those on the Jerry Springer Show. "There are times," admits Clint Gessner '98, "that people are screaming at each other like children."

Taggart is adept at recognizing when the discussion is headed in an unproductive direction. Today he breaks the students into two smaller groups to discuss a prepared list of questions about workplace harassment. The students' focus returns in the smaller groups as they weigh the rights of workers against the liability of employers. All agree that it is inappropriate for a boss to make sexual overtures to an employee, but they are divided over whether advances of a milder sort - such as asking a coworker out on a date - should be forbidden.

"It's just not okay for any advances to be made at work," a student in one group offers. Another counters: "There is a difference between harassment and inappropriate behavior. I don't think it should be legally wrong to make an advance. You just have to be ready to suffer the negative consequences if you do."

The group doesn't reach consensus about how employers should handle such a tangled issue, but reaching consensus isn't the point. "The point of the class wasn't to agree," Gessner says afterward. "It was about teamwork and understanding everyone's perspective."

After six weeks, the class is over, and the students pause to reflect on it before leaving campus for the rest of the summer. For Khari Joseph '98, the Business Ethics debates have proved frustrating for many of the same reasons Gessner found them enlightening. "The class raised a lot of new issues for me," Joseph says, "but each person has his own sense of morality. We just kept hitting a wall because people had different judgments about what's right and wrong. It's like we came into the class, got more information, and went away on the same side we were on when we started."

Gessner responds that, although he may not have changed his mind on any particular issue, it was important for him to consider other points of view. An OBM concentrator, the twenty-six-year-old Gessner took two leaves of absence from Brown to work as a deputy sheriff in his native Houston and in California. "I was raised by cops," he says. "My background is to do the right thing. Always." His experience in law enforcement gave him a clear-cut position on one of the thornier issues tackled in Business Ethics: whether it is moral for businesses to market products such as alcohol and cigarettes to minority communities. Gessner, who is white, says: "I mean, I've worked in jails! I know what happens when you grow up in an area where all you see is ads for malt liquor and Joe Camel." Joseph, who is African American, and Gessner reached an impasse over this particular issue. "Just because you're poor doesn't mean you can't make your own decisions," Joseph points out. Though the two frequently butted heads during the class, the bond of being students struggling to focus on summer school transcended their intellectual differences. "Those of us in the class really felt like brothers and sisters," Gessner says.

After the last week of class, Taggart invited the nine students to his Foxboro, Massachusetts, home for a cookout that Gessner describes as "a real bonding experience." Why did this group of students who screamed and bickered and debated for six weeks ultimately become so close? Selena Shilad, a visiting student from the University of Chicago muses:"We clicked because we were sitting in a small class, talking about moral issues. You sort of have to get along if you're talking about issues of such an emotional nature." Besides, getting along makes knowing that your friends are racking up sun time at the beach a lot easier to take.

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September / October 1998