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Ethics & Service: Graduate students at work in the community

Graduate students dig dirt of ethics training

To say that Darren Sabom, an MBA candidate in the Class of 2008, believes in hands-on ethics training would be a vast understatement. It’s more like hands-in-the-dirt, hard-labor training, involving everything from spreading mulch to gutting houses.

Sabom sat through an ethics class last year, thinking the training would mean more if students applied the lessons outside the boundaries of business school. Over the past year, he developed his idea. This fall, he took some 230 fellow students on a day of projects in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of East Liberty, a community rebuilding from failed 1960s-era urban redevelopment  that now houses a Whole Foods, Starbucks, Borders and Home Depot, and a host of new and renovated homes and small businesses.

A Pittsburgh-area native who returned home to earn an MBA after spending 10 years in the working world, including two years in the Peace Corps, Sabom said, "We should actually get out in the community and get involved in something good, particularly since lots of students are not from Pittsburgh and do not engage with the community.”

So as part of their orientation, 185 MBA students and 45 students pursuing a Master of Science in Computational Finance found themselves far from the boardrooms to which they aspire, instead preparing vacant lots to plant bio-remediating crops; creating planters at a city high school; painting over graffiti; and demolishing the decayed interiors of four historic turret houses to prepare them for remodeling into condominiums.

Aside from feeling good, does community service contribute to becoming a business leader? Sabom thinks so. “It’s always been important that business leaders be conscious of their communities, particularly with the corporate scandals that have gone on recently,” he says. “This gives students the opportunity to be ethical and get them to interact with people outside the business-school circle.”

The importance of teaching ethics is more than responding to recent corporate scandals, says Prof. John Hooker, the T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility at the Tepper School. Assume people want to make good decisions, said Hooker, then teach them how to perform the difficult, but necessary analysis that will help them to explain decisions to different stakeholders who come to the issue from a variety of cultural perspectives. Business, and the people who run them, depend on viable communities for their own success 


To help them make that connection, students will attend a presentation by Professor John Hooker, the T. Jerome Holleran Professor of Business Ethics and Social Responsibility and Professor of Operations Research prior to leaving on their service assignments. Community sponsors include The Sprout Fund, Friends of the Pittsburgh Urban Forest; GTECH – Growth Through Energy and Community Health; Whole Foods; and East Liberty Development Inc., a non-profit community development corporation.

Because this is the first year he has tried a community service project for the ethics training portion of orientation, Sabom isn’t sure what to expect in terms of feedback from his peers.

“I’m a little concerned with the demolition. I think there are going to be some very dirty MBA students,” laughs Sabom, the vice president of Community Outreach for the student government. “But I’m going to give them beer, food, and Gatorade afterwards.”

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Mark D. Burd

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Tepper School of Business
Carnegie Mellon University
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