I love Blue Bell ice cream. When we lived out of state for a number of years, I remember it being a legitimate choice to consider having it shipped to us in dry ice rather than settling for Blue Bunny, or some other inferior northern brand. On one visit home to Texas, driving between Austin and Houston, we stopped at a barbecue place in Brenham. We asked if they could make us milk shakes out of Blue Bell. Barbecue places don’t make milk shakes. But on that day, for a displaced Texas family, that one did. And it was the highlight of our trip.

I also love baseball and Texas A&M, and you cannot think of the two of those together without thinking of our beautiful Blue Bell Park. The Kruse family has been a great friend to this university, and Blue Bell CEO Howard Kruse even spoke to my son personally when he was considering his college choices.

But today, in real time, Blue Bell is grappling with one of the biggest crises in its long history. The presence of listeria in food is not a new thing, and it is one of the risks a food creating and food handling business develops systems to guard against. Obviously, at some level, those systems have not been effective enough at Blue Bell, and that is true in multiple locations. And when people are harmed, any corporation can expect its motives to be questioned and probed.

But corporations do not have motives; people do. The people who run Blue Bell have built up tremendous goodwill over the years through the way they have run their business. Still, as news stories develop over weeks and months, light will be shone on the best and the worst of habits in the company, because that is what makes interesting news. The evidence that seems to point to slow moving calculations of effects will be criticized. Aggressive assumption of duties will be lauded.

Blue Bell’s overriding duty in this situation is to prevent harm from coming to people through the company’s products. That is why the decision to recall all Blue Bell products has been generally praised. It is a defensive decision, one that is designed to prevent harm at any cost. But this is not what companies like Blue Bell are normally designed to do.

Companies that produce ice cream are designed to maximize pleasure, not minimize harm. And companies that are designed to maximize pleasure run on calculations. Some companies are more utilitarian, calculating the greatest good for the greatest number, and these are often viewed as socially responsible. A stadium or theater venue that holds certain numbers of seats at a low price, or those that give back to their communities, fall into this category. Others only calculate the benefit for the company and its shareholders, generally with the goal to maximize profits. Even if they are involved in charitable giving, it is only as a means to protect the bottom line. But whether they are utilitarian or egoistic, virtually all companies that maximize pleasure run on calculations.

Blue Bell is one of these, and the initial response to the evidence of listeria was guarded; it was targeted to head off the harm without unnecessarily disrupting operations. It was the rational response of a pleasure maximizing entity. But there was a point where Blue Bell’s role changed, since they were effectively put in a position where they were the only party that effectively could prevent harm. The question at that point is, “Will the corporation shift its point of view and assume its overriding duty to prevent harm to consumers?” More precisely, will the people who run the company assume that overriding duty and bear the costs that go with it?

When companies make decisions like Blue Bell did, people will still say that companies are calculators, and that they pull their product to avoid lawsuits. While this is potentially true, it is hardly a criticism to say that people are rational. When the calculation aligns with the overriding duty, the decision is an easy one.

Had it reached that point at Blue Bell? No one can say for sure. But since there is obviously no motive to harm consumers, and management progressed rather quickly from a broad partial recall to a total recall, the decision looks to be one of willingly assuming that overriding duty rather than risking further harm to consumers. Blue Bell changed its role from pleasure maximizer to harm minimizer.

There are other duties that Blue Bell needs to fulfill in order to prevent future harm, and their press releases indicate that they are aware of those. I would imagine that systems put in place in the next six months will be markedly different than the ones that have been there for decades. Until these are completed, the public will be wary.

But doing this well will allow Blue Bell to return to doing what it does best—maximizing pleasure. And that includes providing milk shakes for all those Texans who wander home and remember why it is they love this place.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics, Mays Business

Barry Minkow is a classic rags-to-riches American story. Or maybe it’s more like a rags to riches to orange jumpsuit to crime fighter to clerical collar to fraudulent short-seller to multimillion dollar church embezzlement story. He is currently serving a sentence for insider trading related to false accusations against homebuilder Lennar Corp. that drove its stock down while he shorted it.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

I often write about establishing and maintaining values, but I rarely speak about passing on values. Last weekend afforded me a remarkable opportunity to observe what values have been passed on to my children, and made me reconsider who I need to be today.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

Helen Sharkey is a felon. That sentence seems in every way to be wrong, even as I write it. Helen Sharkey is a mom of Tae Kwon Do twins, a loving wife, a faithful friend. She is a diminutive dynamo, energetically expressing truth, thoughtfully responding to questions. She is a star, a top accounting graduate of Southwestern University with a Big 4 pedigree who had a rising career in the energy industry. But, there it is again. Helen Sharkey is a felon.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

I have a high school friend who told me the other day that she could guess what I was going to write about this week. I am quite confident that more than necessary has already been written about the latest New York politician to implode. I watched a brief press conference today in which the moral high ground was held by a celebrity lawyer who specializes in taking high profile clients and ratcheting up the public embarrassment to squeeze additional dollars out of people who have morally compromised themselves. At least I think she held the moral high ground. It might have been the dancer next to her who just wanted her life back.

Anthony Weiner seems oblivious to the damage he is doing to his reputation, to his party, to his marriage, and to his causes. It is clearly all about him, with his life meaning inextricably tied to his ability to retain power and the benefits that go with it. He is what he does. It is hard not to wince.

But he is not the only one. West Virginia University head football coach Bill Stewart recently resigned under pressure after being accused by a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter of asking the reporter to dig up dirt on head-coach-in-waiting Dana Holgorsen. Holgorsen, who is now the head coach, made the job somewhat easier a few weeks ago by allegedly being escorted from a casino at 3 a.m. by security personnel, leading to other rumors. WVU athletic director Oliver Luck thought that it was a good idea to hire Holgorsen while telling Stewart he would be gone in a year. This was despite the fact that Stewart had been hired after being the interim coach for a huge upset of Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl, and followed that up with three nine-win seasons. This is roughly equivalent to being asked to wash the socks of your girlfriend’s new boyfriend (only you get paid seven figures to do it). I think it is safe to say that we will not see any more head-coaches-in-waiting.

Stewart was understandably upset at being dumped. But he managed to take a bad situation that elicited sympathy even from people who thought he should be fired, and turn it into a permanent divorce from the university. He could not accept that it was time to move on.

Last year’s news was dominated by this same story involving Brett Favre, whose closing chapter of his career managed to combine both football and sexual harassment. As his body and his season fell apart, he finally found it in himself to say that it was over.

UPDATE: Shortly following the publication of this column, Rep. Anthony Weiner held a press conference announcing his immediate resignation from his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Or did he? Few believe that John Edwards can ever be a viable presidential candidate again after his scandal. But apparently the taste of power, and fame, and money can make men do strange things. Some things are apparently so precious that they must be secured at any cost, regardless of the damage to others.

Maybe we can think of Weiner, Stewart and Favre as the Fellowship of the Ring. But what they bring to mind for me is a song from the early 70’s that the Jackson Five made famous—”Never Can Say Goodbye.”

One day they will ask me to walk away from the classroom and not come back. My name won’t be on any statues or doors on the campus. My day will have passed. And that day will be here before I know it.

I only hope, when it comes, that I have what it takes to say thanks and walk away. Because, if what you do is who you are, you never can say goodbye.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

Life has thrown me a softball. As an ethics commentator, the Jim Tressels of the world are red meat. He has made an almost unimaginable series of ethical blunders in the whole Ohio State fiasco, leading to his resignation as the Buckeyes’ head football coach. And the “leadership” and “oversight” of those at the university could only be characterized as indefensible. Some of the statements that have been made seem like the definition of “lack of institutional control.”

But who wants to cast the first stone? One of the major reasons for the moral agnosticism that characterizes big-time collegiate sports is that every coach, every athletic director, and every president knows that they are one e-mail away from a disaster that draws the NCAA to campus. I am very grateful not to read about these things regularly around here, but I am not naïve. I know from speaking to student-athletes that there is a compliance environment that sometimes seems overbearing to them. But it is there for a reason. And who is to say it will be effective tomorrow? We have failed here before.

No one in intercollegiate sports wants to cut off the lifeline, which is access to student-athletes when they are in high school. And that environment is arguably getting worse, not better. A recent ESPN report on the 7-on-7 summer football leagues that have proliferated in recent years makes it clear that they are the avenue to being recruited by the top football schools. They are run by folks that are, for the most part, not high school coaches. They are the equivalent of the AAU leagues that have taken over the placement of high school basketball players. And the “coaches” often end up being channels that college football coaches must use to have a chance to sign a particular player. That can lead to booster involvement, side benefits for student-athletes, and hiring go-betweens into coaching and other roles at universities.

In other words, it’s a market. You can use pejorative terms like “meat market” if you like, but it’s a market. Milton Friedman, one of the great defenders of markets, still insisted that participants in markets had to “play by the rules.” But you can make a lot of money if you don’t, and you can even feel good about yourself if you play before they even make the rules, as folks running the 7-on-7 leagues are doing right now. Talking “duties” and “responsibility” in this environment is laughed at by the markets’ participants.

But when you fail to self-regulate, you always get regulation, and the NCAA is cracking down in unprecedented ways. USC will not just lose post-season eligibility for two years for its recruiting of Reggie Bush, but it will sacrifice ten football scholarships for each of the next three years, taking them from 25 to 15. Good luck to head coach Lane Kiffin staying on the straight and narrow during those years. It could happen, because he has a straight arrow athletic director in Pat Haden, and because USC could realistically receive the death penalty for another serious infraction. But when you can only take 15, you had better take the right 15, and that will introduce dangerous temptations.

It is clear that the NCAA no longer believes that big-time programs will hold to a duty to protect the university’s reputation, so they are changing the consequences. I would not be surprised to see them come down very hard on Ohio State, which has protected its coach much as Tennessee did basketball coach Bruce Pearl after he knowingly broke rules.

Many people have suggested paying athletes in order to solve the problem. But this will simply change the price of the market; it will not eliminate it. And the same types of differential incentives will be offered to get the next Reggie Bush to enroll, over and above what the athletes are paid. This is assuming Title IX issues could be worked out about which athletes are paid, and how much.

As cheaters in business have found, modern technology, including e-mail and texting, has made it much easier to build a case against you when you are lying and covering up. In the absence of any sense of duty in intercollegiate athletics, the NCAA will just ratchet up the consequences to go along with the increased probability of being caught. And self-interested young people who have been on the take often like to tell their story after they are no longer relevant, as Ohio State is currently finding out, which will help the enforcers. But in intercollegiate athletics, as in the business world which is usually the focus of my attention, the incentives to win and the money tied to winning are so strong that the NCAA has no choice but to step up the penalties significantly.

As I said, life threw me a softball this week. But in a world that is sadly unable to self-correct, and in which no one is listening, I can’t bring myself to lecture folks one more time. I think I will just turn around and walk back to the dugout.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

I have been in the back yard too much lately, pulling weeds and putting down mulch. But the biggest problem has been my lawn. I don’t take great pride in my grass, but I try not to let it become a basis for neighbors to storm my castle bearing torches. A large section of my lawn has a burned out appearance, which I attributed at first to the lack of rain and a badly functioning sprinkler system. But the news is worse; I have grubworms.

What a name—grubworms. It must be a bummer to have a compound name where each half is a really negative word. When they get into your lawn, all you can do is nuke them and lay down new grass. So this past weekend I bought half a pallet of grass and started putting it down. This is way more work than I really wanted to do, but I didn’t have much choice. When I was done, what came to mind in looking at my back yard was a badly fitting toupee. There were parts of the lawn that clearly needed more living grass coverage, and parts that had lumps that should not be there.

But it seems to me that watching people try to recover their integrity after a public fall is much like watching someone whose hairpiece falls short of the ideal. This is particularly true when they seem ambitious as well. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is discovering this as he puts himself forward as a presidential candidate. If he implies any change in a position, as Gingrich has with requiring Americans to purchase health insurance, people roll their eyes and say, “There he goes again.”

This may be less true with entertainment figures; Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to find out. But it is still awkward to think about Eliot Spitzer being a talk show host rather than the governor of New York. And trying to see Tiger as the good guy becomes a bit tiresome. His string of injuries, which prompted his drop from the world’s top ten golfers for the first time in 14 years, has almost served as a relief from constant discussion of his character and attitude.

I have concluded that though folks largely want to read these stories, they quickly move to a stage where they do not care about these people any more. It is really difficult to gin up the emotion time after time that would somehow make these people an example not to be followed. Instead, they are a news item, and then, history.

Andy Fastow of Enron fame has been transferred to a halfway house prior to his release from prison later this year. He is 49. What hope does he have to regain his reputation? Perhaps more than you think. It is difficult enough to find people who finish well among the general populace, much less among those whose lives have cratered. But there are exceptions. Chuck Colson, famous for being one of Richard Nixon’s hatchet men and the first member of the administration to go to prison for Watergate, bounced back from his prison term to found Prison Fellowship, an evangelical organization that has had significant influence for good. He went to prison in his mid-40’s, and he will turn 80 later this year. Perhaps Fastow will have a similar experience.

But it is not easy. Grubworms eat the roots, and that’s why my work in the back yard is so painful and unsatisfying. Who wants to stay after it year after year, when it would be much easier to move to a condo? (I have suggested this on more than one occasion to my wife.) It would be very difficult to do it to please others. There probably has to be a genuine inner transformation that withstands the catcalls, the snickers, the derision, and the lingering bitterness that big mistakes bring.

Because, in the end, recovered integrity is just like a badly fitting toupee. People may smile and treat you the same. But, despite their best intentions, they can’t help but notice.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

In the biorhythm of the academic year, this time of year ties together all the loose ends, providing a sense of finality. Next week I will attend graduation again. This must be how my daughter, who is a pediatrician, feels when she attends a child’s birth. It is incredibly unique to the participants, but the doctor has seen this before. Actually, Linda and I have already attended nine graduations of our own children, and we likely have at least three more to attend, the Lord willing.

This does not count all the graduations I have attended in my 22 years as a professor. They have varied in size and approach, but I am taken by how the people involved always embrace the event. In my first academic stop, I was not a fan of attending what seemed an impersonal exercise. In my second job, all faculty members were required to attend graduation and, since there were only about 100 of us, you would be noticed if you didn’t. Faculty would wait at the end of the stage for students from their discipline to walk off, and the students would go through a receiving line of handshakes and hugs. It was a very personal experience, usually held on the college lawn in May. It is one of the reasons that parents spend inordinate amounts of money to send their kids to small liberal arts schools.

As everyone knows, the ceremonies themselves are inordinately boring, almost without fail. Because of the size of the graduation, Texas A&M hosts the keynote speaker at a commencement convocation on Thursday prior to the five graduation ceremonies on Friday and Saturday. This shortens the graduation ceremony considerably, but it also removes virtually all hope that anything memorable will be said. But this does not mean that the ceremony is unimportant.

If Muster is what brings us back and holds us together, graduation is what propels us forward. For students, it is the uncertain embracing of responsibility, a little like cliff diving when you are not exactly sure how deep the water is. For those of us who invest in these students, it is a bittersweet goodbye to conversations in the hallway and the classroom, and a recognition that we are largely unnecessary to our students’ future successes. This is healthy, because there are others who need our investment. To linger too long regretting our losses is to miss the opportunity to invest our lives again.

This morning at Starbucks I saw Jessica, who is two years removed from this place that she loves, early in her marriage and motoring forward with her accounting firm. It brightened my day to see her face. But it heartened me even more to hear that she is investing her life in ministering to the homeless in Dallas through her church, even while she assumes substantial responsibility running jobs at the firm. She is not simply pursuing wealth and building business skills; she is investing in people and leading, inside and outside the work environment.

Last weekend Linda, Nathan and I drove to central Oklahoma to meet our older son, Kenny, at a state park. We spent our time together hiking and playing games but, more than anything, we laughed. It was a celebration of life, both life as we knew it and life as it is. Our boys are ten years apart in age. One still needs us, to some extent, and the other one doesn’t. One has gone on to greater things, the other aspires to greatness.

Still, it is clear to me how important it is to plug back in, to recharge, and to remember. It would be sad for Kenny if he did not have a place to return to where he is loved unconditionally, not based on his performance as a line manager in a Cessna plant. It would also be sad if he had not moved forward into his life apart from us. We pray the same will be true for his younger brother, and we are grateful for how Kenny reaches out to mentor Nathan in making the transition, while affirming him in who he is as a high school sophomore.

We have seen this happen before with our children, but we are reaching the end of watching these transitions. On the other hand, as long as I have the privilege of entering the university classroom, I will watch this process repeat itself with my students. I will cheer from the bleachers for them, and I will pose for a few pictures afterwards. I will rejoice in the celebration of their accomplishments.

I will watch them walk across that stage, and down the steps, and into a world that desperately needs people of character who will invest themselves in others. I will watch them walk forward confidently, but not without a glance over the shoulder to remember what this place has provided them.

Because, on a May Saturday in a place like this, walking forward into the waiting world is exactly what you ought to do.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

​Today I sat across the picnic table from a gorgeous, blue-eyed girl who had fixed me a fancy sandwich and snicker doodles. She proceeded to recite the second chapter of I Peter from memory, pausing only for one conjunction. Impressive. All that, and good-looking, too.

​She memorized that because it is important to her, the way she knows the birthday of every living human being who has come into contact with us in the last 33 years. She knows what gift she gave you, and she rightly expects that I ought to remember what gifts others gave me.

​I, on the other hand, remember Jim Gentile’s important batting statistics from 1961. No one else remembers Jim Gentile. I remember where I was sitting, and who I was sitting with, and how cold I was at the 1974 A&M-Texas game. I remember K.C. and the Sunshine Band. But I also remember the anniversary of my first date with the World’s Most Beautiful Woman. And I remember being 22 and staring through the glass at the most glorious sight I had ever seen, my baby girl, as I left the hospital at 2 a.m. with my last two dollars in my pocket.

​My office is gradually transitioning from a place of pictures and gifts from my children into a shrine to grandkids. But there are still important memories in this place. Behind my desk is a small plaque from one of my first students that says, “A Loving Teacher Makes Learning a Joy.” There is a picture taken by a photographer of me on another campus walking across the street with my two youngest children when they were small. I have an aquarium hanging up made out of two paper plates, and a picture of all five kids in the backyard in Michigan. The class of 1998 at Hillsdale College, one of whom just made partner at a major accounting firm, is on my file cabinet. I even have the radio I listened to in high school.

​There is a significant need within each of us to remember the things that matter. It seems that this longing only grows as our capacity for it diminishes. I find that my wife is generally a superior judge of what ought to be remembered, because she has a better sense of what are truly the permanent things. But we both have to work harder than we used to at remembering.

​I have also found that it is very important to people to be remembered. I think I underestimated early in my career how important it was to my students that I know who they were. When you teach 250-300 students a year, and when those students love to come back to campus to remember, and to recruit people to their firms, it is a challenge to always have names on the tip of your tongue. But it would be naïve of me to think that it doesn’t matter whether or not I try.

​The traditions at Texas A&M are centered around remembering. We remember E. King Gill as the 12th Man stands ready to take the field, if necessary, on fall Saturdays. Every month we remember the current students we have lost at Silver Taps. Elephant Walk, Final Review, and, in former days, Bonfire, have evoked emotions in Aggies as accumulated history washes over each person’s personal experience with this place. And its graduates wear a ring like no other, proudly earned and warmly extended to others, as the ultimate sign of a common bond of memories.

​I say all this because tonight I will attend what is perhaps the finest of Aggie traditions, Muster. It seems ironic that it falls on Holy Thursday: “Do this in remembrance of me.” I will go to remember, and to celebrate the lives of those who have gone on before us. I may not feel the need to call out “Here!” as I have in another year. But I will be there. And I will remember.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics