rolyn Woo, the dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, simply shrugged off the muffled laughs of her colleagues as she pressed on with her conviction: Business schools should go one step further than teaching ethics and corporate social responsibility. M.B.A. programs should teach students about the role of business in achieving and destabilizing world peace.
Ms. Woo raised the issue about a year and a half ago at the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or AACSB, which accredits business schools around the world. Now, the association has put together a program called Peace Through Commerce with the aim of raising awareness about what business schools can do to promote peace. The program's task force includes representatives from business schools, such as SDA Bocconi School of Management in Italy and the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea.
The concept of promoting peace through commerce was touted by philosophers as early as the 1700s, and the idea was part of the zeitgeist at the time the United Nations was founded. It is also the basic tenet of the European Union: Countries that trade together don't go to war.
Ethics is a mandatory subject at all AACSB-accredited schools, but Ms. Woo believes that decades of work on topics such as corporate social responsibility and corruption haven't penetrated into the core of business-school thinking.
"This has been emerging," she says. "The conversation has been swirling around us. But, for whatever reason, business schools have not chosen for this to be an integral part of how we teach and talk about business."
Notre Dame is one of four business schools planning conferences around the peace-through-commerce theme this year. The others are George Washington University, the University of Southern California and Case Western Reserve University. Notre Dame's conference will focus on how the business community can better work with nongovernmental organizations, given the growth in the number of NGOs, their differing points of view and their status as transnational institutions. Conference attendees will examine case studies of successful cooperation between businesses and NGOs.
"Businesses have begun to comprehend that they have to work together with NGOs to have a big impact on social problems," Ms. Woo says.
The Notre Dame conference will be co-sponsored by the U.N. Global Compact Office, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan is scheduled as the keynote speaker.
Georg Kell, the executive head of the Global Compact Office and a member of the AACSB's task force on peace through commerce, is working to involve academic institutions in the Global Compact, which was initially set up to facilitate work among companies, UN agencies and NGOs.
"Having spoken to so many academic audiences in the last four to five years, I can only attest to the appetite of young people to really dig into this," he says. "I know there's demand and great readiness, especially on the side of the students, and faculty members are catching up."
Mr. Kell sees the Peace Through Commerce program as a long-term initiative that complements the work of the Global Compact.
"The potential is really in regearing educational institutions in a broader sense to sensitize the whole of business on its societal impact and to revisit some of the very foundations of commerce and peace," says Mr. Kell.
AACSB is beginning to inventory what member schools are already doing in this area. Many efforts, such as a program at Thunderbird, the Garvin School of International Management, are geared toward overall economic development and the education of young managers.
The program grew from a project that brought 15 women from Afghanistan to the Thunderbird campus to learn about entrepreneurship, communications and networking. In Vietnam, students at National Economics University are learning how to do business with the U.S. through a program with Washington State University.
Some business schools support microfinance initiatives and offer small businesses in developing countries free consulting services. Students at Fairfield University's Charles F. Dolan School of Business in Connecticut, for instance, helped locals in Haiti set up a bakery.
Other schools host centers or institutes that focus on social issues. Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management has established a Center for Business as an Agent of World Benefit, and Duke University's Fuqua School of Business operates the Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship with a focus on using principles of entrepreneurship to create social value.
Fuqua's center offers an elective course on social entrepreneurship and strongly recommends electives offered in conjunction with other schools at Duke, including the law school, the public-policy institute and its school of the environment. Courses available include entrepreneurial strategy, nonprofit management and leadership, and philanthropy, voluntarism and not-for-profit management.
These type of curriculum-level initiatives -- at schools around the world -- are what Ms. Woo and AACSB would wish for through the Peace Through Commerce program.
"Our long-term benefit will be embedding [this] change into the curriculum," says John Fernandes, president and chief executive of AACSB International, "Business schools have their part. If we educate students that it's their responsibility to advance society, over a generation, we may be able to have more impact and success than governments have had."