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Between Constraints and Morals

In a seminar at Eucor – The European Campus, students are exploring ways of dealing with ethical conflicts

Freiburg, Jan 02, 2019

How do executives handle situations involving a conflict between practical constraints and moral problems? Teachers and students of economics, theology, and Catholic welfare studies at the Universities of Basel, Freiburg, and Strasbourg are investigating this question – and in doing so are transforming themselves into silent shadows.

Award-winning teaching concept: Students explore and test out how executives can handle a situation involving a conflict between practical constraints and moral problems. Photo: Thomas Reimer/Fotolia

The scandal at Oxfam, misappropriation of donations at Unicef – news of this kind from the nonprofit sector is alarming when one considers that ethical principles are of paramount importance particularly for charitable organizations. “It is extremely important to familiarize students with theories and philosophical approaches before they enter professional practice – to train them so that they are capable of dealing with problem situations later on,” finds the economist Prof. Dr. Jörg Lindenmeier, professor for public and nonprofit management at the University of Freiburg. Together with the theologian Prof. Dr. Klaus Baumann, director of the Section for Catholic Welfare Studies and Christian Social Work at the University of Freiburg, and the Catholic welfare studies scholar Karin Jors, he is teaching a seminar that aims to give theoretical knowledge a grounding in practical experience. Students of economics, theology, and Catholic welfare studies learn how to handle a situation involving a conflict between practical constraints and moral considerations. The three teachers received the Instructional Development Award for their elaborate teaching concept and used the €70,000 in prize money to develop e-learning modules to supplement the regular classroom meetings. Another element of the seminar is a method known as shadowing, in which the students accompany executives in their daily working routines.

Illuminating Changes in Perspective

“We find it interesting to develop a teaching format within the context of the Eucor alliance that attempts to link together different universities and two disciplines,” says Baumann. The fields of study contributing to the seminar are theology in Freiburg and Strasbourg and economics in Freiburg and Basel. The language of instruction is primarily English, but the teachers also expect the students to possess passive skills in French and German. Catholic welfare studies and economics have already been collaborating for a long time in Freiburg. “The changes in perspective are a good way to get a different look at a topic,” finds Lindenmeier. “It is very illuminating to learn what people with other cultural and personal backgrounds or from another field of study think about an ethical dilemma.” Leadership theories are important for both fields. Catholic welfare studies is concerned with public welfare work, for instance providing services for the disabled. This also involves issues concerning the responsibility of executive personnel, explains Baumann: “How, for example, can we design a health economy that focuses on people – not economic interests?” The field of economics, on the other hand, uses management approaches based on economic models to make decisions. “Encounters like this are enriching: in an individual, cultural, and academic sense,” says Baumann.

Students as Shadows

Between the class meetings, the seminar participants immerse themselves in topics like ethical philosophy or conflict management with the help of e-learning modules. In doing so, they can concentrate on the areas where they have individual needs. “Students who are already familiar with a topic from their own field can go through this content more quickly,” explains Jors, who is developing the e-learning modules: “We want to create a common basis among the students. The e-learning offers them great flexibility and the opportunity to take on responsibility for their own learning process.”

News about misappropriation of donations is alarming, because ethical principles are of paramount importance particularly for nonprofit organizations. Photo: M. Schuppich/Fotolia

Most importantly, the seminar is designed to allow the students to actually experience leadership tasks. The concept of the seminar thus includes contact with executives, who agree to allow themselves to be shadowed by individual students receiving tutoring from Jors. After an initial class meeting in Freiburg, the task is to work through a real-life case. The students develop the idea for it together with the executive and look for ethical challenges for this purpose in their environment. “It will probably often pertain to staff policy or the planning of services,” suspects Jors, such as when the executive has to cut staff to increase efficiency. The idea is for each of the executives to take one of the students to work for three days, for example to conferences or to a general meeting, and to talk with the student about experiences they have had with situations involving ethical and moral conflicts. “In the situation itself, the students are ‘silent shadows,’ but there are also consequences of what they have experienced,” says Baumann. “The students can ask questions about the situation, reflect on it, and make note of things for their own learning process in order to feed the results back into our class meetings.”

The students then work through the ethical problem situations identified in shadowing at their second class meeting in Strasbourg. In a role play, they simulate a board meeting in which they discuss their cases as items on the agenda in rotating roles – as the chair of the meeting, as the staff representative, or as the financial backer. Then they hold a vote to make a decision and document it in the minutes – “just like at a normal board meeting. That, too, is a part of managing an organization,” underlines Lindenmeier.

Sensitivity for Good Leadership

As a graded assessment, the participants work out a business case on their situation: They outline an ethical conflict between practical economic constraints and moral norms. Then they appraise this situation on the basis of ethical theories they have been introduced to in the seminar and use them to make and justify a decision. At the final class meeting, which is held in Basel, they present the results of their case. The shadowing partners are invited to attend. “The executives find the project exciting and are very motivated,” says Jors. “They appreciate the chance to reflect on their own daily work through the contact with students.” The teachers are also excited to see how the seminar develops. “We are looking forward to breaking new ground,” says Baumann. “If our students develop a sensitivity for good leadership – through reflection, through discussion, through confrontation with other business cultures –, then we have achieved a great deal.”

Sarah Schwarzkopf