But the revelations about the maneuverings of Enron Corporation executives and the actions of the company's auditor, Arthur Andersen, are too tempting to pass up, professors say.
Roger D. Martin, an assistant accounting professor at the business school at Indiana University, says he introduced a graduate accounting class on the company early in November, when Enron had to restate its earnings and "things started smoking."
Professor Martin said he planned to use Enron's financial meltdown for years to come as a case study in his advanced accounting class.
This is a classic case in almost everything related to accounting," he said. "If anything, it might make it tough to keep the conversation going in just one direction because there are so many angles."
Other business school professors say they are eager to use Enron to enliven business cases that too often focus on old examples like the Ford Pinto gas tank of the 1970's. "Students now are largely unimpressed if something is more than four to five years old," said Al Hartgraves, an accounting professor at the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta.
Before his students left for their Christmas break in the second week of December, Professor Hartgraves promised to e-mail them a summary of the company's situation, and did so at the end of the month. Then a couple of weeks ago, he created a computer bulletin board about Enron over the internal e-mail system that connects roughly 1,000 Emory business students. Within 24 hours, he said, more than 100 students had asked him for bulletin board access.
"We've seen audit failures before with companies like Waste Management and Sunbeam," Professor Hartgraves said, "but never anything as big as this."
At Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., Alfonso F. Canella, an adjunct professor who teaches a class in financial modeling, said he planned to use Enron to illustrate the mechanics, as well as the riskiness, of putting together limited partnerships, especially when the deals were not listed on a company's balance sheet.
Not everyone is convinced that Enron's troubles belong in every classroom. Jan Barton, an assistant accounting professor at Emory, thinks that it is appropriate to use Enron in an introductory course on financial statement analysis, but that its accounting and energy-trading practices may be too complicated for most students. Even when it comes to teaching more advanced students, Professor Barton said, he preferred to focus on companies like Dell Computer, Sears Roebuck, Wal-Mart and Microsoft, whose financial statement practices and products are easier to understand.
"I don't want to talk about a company that operates in a funky industry, like utilities, and whose transactions involved things like financial derivative contracts," Mr. Barton said.
Still, Diana C. Robertson, an associate professor of organization and management at Goizueta, in time concluded that the Enron case could not be ignored.
In December, she decided to stick to well-documented cases like the antitrust charges against Microsoft and Nike foreign labor practices for her business ethics classes. But as Enron unraveled, she decided that using a business story in the making, rather than one that is years or decades old, was too "wonderful" to pass up.
Raymond D. Horton, chairman of the Columbia University Business School's management division, said he would allocate plenty of time to the subject this winter in his course on the modem political economy. "We're all itching to discuss it," he said, pointing to a pile of Enron news clippings on his desk.
Robert Rupe, a second-year finance student at Columbia, said one lecture for a course on corporate turnarounds he just signed up for is titled simply "Enron."
A useful point in the Enron case, business professors say, is the light it sheds on the evolution of the American corporation into unexpected forms. For example, Anne Carter, an economics professor at Brandeis, says it helps illuminate the nature of the modern corporation, which often bears little resemblance to the "mythical" manufacturing and farming companies that appear in many textbooks. For one thing, she said, Enron is a good way to show students just how much of an imbalance there is in the information investors typically receive, and how a company can exploit that imbalance.
Professor Carter plans to devote three classes to Enron this semester in an undergraduate course she teaches. "I really think that Enron shows students that the market now is very different from the market that was shaped by Adam Smith's invisible hand," she said.