Global Immersions, Ethical Contexts
- A new eight-week course at Texas Christian University immerses students in global business contexts shaped by local ethical issues.
- During the course’s first offering, students spent one week in Sicily learning how a collective farm is cultivating land seized from the Mafia through the government’s social reuse program.
- Such multidisciplinary study abroad experiences not only immerse students in rich cultural contexts, but also open their eyes to how different parts of the world have addressed complex ethical challenges.
Nestled in a wheat-yellow valley in Sicily, thousands of orange trees blossom under cool Mediterranean skies, under the shadow of Mount Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano. But this location is no ordinary orange grove. It was made possible by Libera Terra, a nonprofit, self-sufficient collective farm located on land once controlled by the Italian Mafia. Founded in 1995, Libera Terra, which translates to “freed land,” allows for the transfer of confiscated real estate assets from the Mafia to local authorities and groups.
Through this legal system, called “social reuse,” Libera Terra creates new products, while employing approximately 200 workers at its farm, most of whom are recently arrived immigrants and former prisoners. The collective also partners with local farmers and assists them in producing, designing, and marketing various products such as citrus, baked goods, olive oil, pasta, flour, mozzarella, legumes, preserves, and wines.
In other words, goodbye, Don Corleone and Tony Soprano. Hello, homemade pasta, olive oil, and fresh produce.
This arrangement was the focus of Global Business With an Ethical Lens, a new required course at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth. A group of undergraduate business students traveled to Sicily for one week in March 2023 to tour Libera Terra’s citrus farm. While viewing some of the most scenic land in the world, students learned about the complex history that led to the farm’s existence, as well as the ethical frameworks that have shaped Sicily’s business community.
The Nuances of (Illegitimate) Business
As the Director of Neeley International Programs, I am also the coordinator and instructor for the course. As I tell students on the syllabus, a key objective of this class is “understanding and examining problems from perspectives that are different than your own.” I want students to realize that if they are going to work in global, multicultural environments and develop solutions that are ethical, just, and equitable to all stakeholders, they must be able to see issues from multiple viewpoints.
Prior to the Sicily trip, I introduced students to Italy’s social reuse laws, explaining that organized crime in Sicily has increasingly adopted a business-focused model. Although this means that the Sicilian Mafia’s power is more limited now than in the past, its presence still has significant impact on the country’s business environment.
As I explain on the syllabus, “Companies in Italy must either succumb to Mafia influence through bribes or risk being ‘unprotected.’ … The prevalence of illegitimate business and shady practices leads to a business environment that resists a long-term lens and leads to a cyclical labor environment that is volatile and short-term focused.”
During their one-week trip to Sicily, students learned about the complex history and ethical frameworks that have shaped Sicily’s business community.
In addition, I asked students to read a 2021 article in The New York Times for further historical background on the laws that make Libera Terra possible. “Laws in Italy allow for the social reuse—although not the sale—of property seized from people convicted of involvement in organized crime,” the article’s authors explain. “Once properties are confiscated, they can be made available for groups to bid on. Libera Terra—itself part of the anti-Mafia organization Libera—helps groups bid for tenders. After the tender is won, it provides training and guidance on managing co-ops.”
As the article describes, this business model is “a way to reuse confiscated properties to redistribute wealth locally, providing jobs for local people—many of whom had few alternatives to working for the Mafia.” Students also learned that similar social reuse is occurring in other countries. One example is a pastry shop opened in 2018 in Albania. Funded by the European Union, the shop is run by locals and operates out of confiscated property. The government’s aim “was to send out a message that what’s stolen from society can and must be given back.”
This course was many students’ first exposure to the very real impact the Mafia’s presence can have on small business owners. For the rest of the course, students were able not only to immerse themselves in a different culture, but also to consider how businesses can thrive within these unusual ethical contexts and frameworks.
Ethical Frameworks, Cultural Agility
Global Business With an Ethical Lens is structured so that, over the eight-week semester, students meet every Tuesday evening for three hours. During each session, they read and discuss a variety of global case studies and apply ethical frameworks to current business issues. During the weeklong spring break in mid-March, they travel to the location they have been studying.
Students provide pre-trip presentations to their classmates. Two weeks after they return from the trip, the teams present their final projects. Students also complete individual reflection papers on the cross-cultural agility and attributes they developed throughout the course.
For example, prior to traveling to Sicily, the 21 students enrolled in the course’s first iteration were divided into five project teams; each team was assigned to study a current business issue in Italy. Based on course discussions, assigned readings, and independent research, the teams analyzed their selected issues in the context of Italy’s business environment, identifying both challenges and opportunities. Their goal was to make recommendations about how different organizations or inititiaves could make an impact.
During this experience, student teams also were assigned to study relevant overarching trends and institutions relating to this model, ranging from financial institutions and governmental bodies to educational frameworks and labor laws. Each team explored the assigned topic in terms of the advantages and disadvantages it implied for local businesses.
For example, one team studied Sicily’s employment model, which emphasizes local farmers and immigrant labor. Senior Kayla Mullin, a member of this team, said that she enjoyed the insights that this experience provided. “Our team focused on the intersection between labor in Sicily and the Mafia’s effect on it—specifically through a business lens. We were tasked with asking questions [of] our guides and presenters while abroad and using this information to frame our focus as an ethical issue.”
Mullin elaborated on some of the roadblocks encountered by the organizers of Libera Terra. “This cooperative has faced challenges as the public perception was not always positive,” she said. “There have been attacks on these lands, such as burning of crops as a form of protest. People were also concerned to take this land for fear there would be Mafia retaliation.”
After completing their research, Mullins and her teammates recommended that the collective farm lengthen the time frame of its labor contracts to a minimum of two years. This policy would help workers trade seasonal employment for more stable positions, so that they would no longer have to rely on unions—which often were subject to Mafia influence—to use collective bargaining as a tool to provide stability to the job market.
Multidisciplinary, Multicultural Learning
To arrange the trip to Sicily, we worked with an educational partner located there to help us frame the educational experience we had in mind. While students paid for their own travel, we made need-based scholarships available to those who qualified.
Our educational partner also has other offices in Europe. With its support, we plan to take students to Madrid during the course’s next offering in March 2024. In May, we will offer the same course, although it will be structured to allow students to stay in their selected countries longer than one week. There is enough student demand to offer three sections with students travelling to Berlin, Madrid, and London. If students cannot or prefer not to travel, we are also providing the option for them to participate in an on-campus experience that focuses on issues in Ethiopia.
Just as before, each offering of this course will ask students to explore another culture and take an in-depth look at an ethical issue that exists in that culture. I want students to leave the course with an understanding of a different cultural context, a willingness to view ethical issues from multiple perspectives, and an ability to develop equitable solutions.
Global Business With an Ethical Lens helps students achieve this learning objective by weaving finance, marketing, labor, ethics, and other business disciplines into its content. The course’s multidisciplinary nature fits well into the university’s mission, which emphasizes “educating individuals to think and act as ethical leaders and responsible citizens in the global community.”
I want students to leave the course with an understanding of a different cultural context, a willingness to view ethical issues from multiple perspectives, and an ability to develop equitable solutions.
With this mission in mind, before students leave for any faculty-led study abroad program, we ask them to complete individual cultural agility assessments. This allows them to identify which cultural competencies they would like to develop within themselves during their study abroad experiences. After they return, they complete reflections about what they learned and how they developed the skills highlighted by the initial assessment.
Some faculty-led programs also include consulting projects for international companies. During these experiences, Neeley students work on current business issues and then present the results to the participating companies.
Global Business With an Ethical Lens can be especially eye-opening and life-changing for students, because it introduces them to cultural, legal, and, yes, criminal systems that they might not have even considered. Before taking this course, most students who traveled to Sicily thought that the Mafia was just like what was portrayed in The Godfather. But after seeing firsthand the real-world ramifications of organized crime, they learned how sustainable business can help a society intentionally move toward a better future.
That kind of experience represents the most impactful part of taking students abroad—watching them grow and learn from being immersed in, and challenged by, different cultural and ethical frameworks.