CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — In simpler times, handshakes sealed business deals. Now, they could help restore a grip on career values that veered off course amid a wave of high-profile scandals that sank Enron, WorldCom and other corporate giants.
Handshakes and other people skills, ethics training and social awareness are just a few aspects of a back-to-basics business course that will begin this fall at the University of Illinois, aimed at instilling professional responsibility to guide students through their careers.
"There is a perception, unfortunately sometimes based in truth, that business people are working only in their own self-interest – that they're greedy and selfish," said Susan Curtis, a lecturer in accountancy who helped develop Business 101. "With this course, we hope to prepare our future business leaders to be concerned about the world around them and to understand that as future business leaders they can change that world for the better."
Business 101, which will become a required course for all new U. of I. business students, is unique because it will go beyond the ethics training that became a priority on college campuses after the corporate scandals that rocked the start of the new millennium, officials say.
The U. of I. course, developed through four years of study and pilot efforts, also seeks to hone professional and interpersonal skills, from handshakes and dressing right to developing solid values and making sure they mesh with business strategies and the common good.
"Business 101 is an ambitious new course into which we have poured our best insights," said Larry DeBrock, interim dean of the College of Business.
"By better preparing students early on, they will do better as they progress through the college and throughout their careers," DeBrock said.
Curtis says the course includes basics that are easy to overlook but will ultimately help shape students' professional identity – handshakes, how to dress and how to interact with others.
"They need to understand the impression they make should reflect their personal integrity, and that they're representing not just themselves but the companies they work for," she said. "They need to know that the so-called ‘soft skills' are every bit as important as the theoretical and conceptual material they're going to learn in classes over the next four years."
The course also seeks to give students an ethical compass, Curtis says, encouraging them to explore their own values and lock in principles that will steer them toward the right choices – in good times and bad.
Those lessons will be laced with real-life experience, such as reviewing company codes of conduct and talks by business professionals who have juggled the challenges of work and home life or blown the whistle on illegal or unethical practices.
"This is really going to open up the conversation about responsibility in business," Curtis said. "That's what's so exciting. To have professional responsibility as the foundation of education in students' formative years will serve them very well both in school and beyond."
She says students also will be encouraged to put lessons to use by participating in campus and community activities.
"Experience, such as what young people get through involvement in these activities, brings meaning to what they learn in class," Curtis said.
Two grants from the university's Center for Professional Responsibility in Business and Society helped develop the new course, which will be offered to about half of new business students this fall and will expand to include all incoming business students next year.
"Graduates of our programs will be better equipped to recognize and respond to challenges in the workplace," said Gretchen Winter, the executive director of the 2-year-old center. "Critical thinking skills and sound judgment, coupled with the willingness to act, are complex and multi-dimensional attributes that must be nurtured in order to be attained, and Business 101 is the beginning of that journey for our students."
Business 101 - Course Information
Professor Susan Curtis - Faculty Profile
Center for Professional Responsibility
(Story by Jan Dennis, News Bureau)