Bottom Line Ethics

Lead Story

And They Called Him Michael

Michael K. Shaub, October 3rd, 2021

I spend my days teaching at an institution where everyone wants to be remembered. There is a name on virtually everything here at Texas A&M—buildings, classrooms, colleges, departments. I walk by Kyle Field and see them etched into pillars, with dates and accomplishments included, or hanging on banners. All those names represent people who wanted to continue their impact long after they were gone from this campus or from this life. Some have paid dearly for the privilege, and others have simply received it as an honor from others who thought them worth remembering.

I have told many people that it was my goal to have a nameplate with my name on it inside the first stall in the men’s room on the fourth floor of the Mays Business School. That way I knew it would be remembered, because people would regularly spend five minutes staring at it. This has probably been my way of coming to grips with the permanence, or lack thereof, of my career’s impact.

I think what we all hope for is that our lives matter, and that having been here on earth made a difference. Occasionally, amidst all the failures and foibles of everyday life, we are given a glimpse of the idea that, against all evidence, it might be true.

This happened to me fifteen years ago this month when my oldest grandson was born. My daughter and son-in-law gave their first baby Aaron the middle name Michael. This was a double honor since both of his grandfathers are named Michael. Aaron is the kind of young man you want your name attached to, with a ready laugh and a willing heart. He is a great student living out his faith, a center and long snapper for his freshman football team, and a devoted Tennessee Volunteers fan. I was truly honored at the time, but I was 50, with two kids still at home, and far less reflective than I am today at 65.

With Aaron Michael, before the 2016 Tennessee-Texas A&M game

When Linda and I were in our late thirties, we had our fifth child and second son. We had named our older son for both his grandfathers, and he carried as his first name my father’s name, Kenneth, which is also my middle name. When our younger son was born, Nathan was an easy choice. His name means “gift of God,” and that is exactly what he felt like to us as a couple at that stage in our marriage. But what to do for his middle name? In the end, we chose just as my parents did, to make his father’s first name the son’s middle name.

Holding my son Nathan’s hand, with his sister Katie

Well, that little boy grew up, and last week his wife gave birth to a little boy. And they called him Michael. Judah Michael, to be precise. I must admit that tears have welled up in my eyes multiple times just thinking about that. I suppose it’s because of my age and watching the things that have driven me for so long slip quickly into the rear-view mirror. Maybe it is the constant reminder the last year and a half of how precious and fleeting life is, or maybe it was just holding him close to me this week and watching him breathe. But it has caused me to reflect in a new way on the closest thing we have to permanence on this earth, and that is the opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of those who come after us.

With Nathan Michael, Judah Michael, and The World’s Most Beautiful Woman

I suppose, in many cases, that is what naming is. I realized the other day that all our children and grandchildren have family names as part of their inheritance. Perhaps it is that longing for permanence, that searching for a deep identity, that causes us to do that. It may actually be that it is more than just wanting to be remembered. It is about creating something that lasts. But even if I am not around long enough to get to know Judah, he will ask the question—what was my grandfather Michael like? And my son will tell him stories of knee football games, of pitching practice in the backyard, of high school lunches at Pepe’s, of navigating relationships and the teen years on the way to developing a vision for his life. He will say, “Buddy, you and I have the same middle name!” And as that little boy nods his head, his Daddy’s thoughts will wander to his days as a little boy.

In the Eisenhower fifties, an Irish Catholic mom and a reluctant Protestant father from the greatest generation walked into the antiseptic smell of Mercy Hospital in Baltimore. And a few days later, they walked out with their third son. Their first two sons had family names, and one included the name of a war hero friend. But when it got around to their third, they gave him the father’s name as a middle name. The question was, what do we call him? What will his first name be? As usually happened in that family, where his older brother was named Patrick, the Irish Catholic mother won that argument.

And they called him Michael.

I spend my days teaching at an institution where everyone wants to be remembered. There is a name on virtually everything here at Texas A&M—buildings, classrooms, colleges, departments. I walk by Kyle Field and see them etched into pillars, with dates and accomplishments included, or hanging on banners. All those names represent people who wanted to continue their impact long after they were gone from this campus or from this life. Some have paid dearly for the privilege, and others have simply received it as an honor from others who thought them worth remembering.

I have told many people that it was my goal to have a nameplate with my name on it inside the first stall in the men’s room on the fourth floor of the Mays Business School. That way I knew it would be remembered, because people would regularly spend five minutes staring at it. This has probably been my way of coming to grips with the permanence, or lack thereof, of my career’s impact.

I think what we all hope for is that our lives matter, and that having been here on earth made a difference. Occasionally, amidst all the failures and foibles of everyday life, we are given a glimpse of the idea that, against all evidence, it might be true.

This happened to me fifteen years ago this month when my oldest grandson was born. My daughter and son-in-law gave their first baby Aaron the middle name Michael. This was a double honor since both of his grandfathers are named Michael. Aaron is the kind of young man you want your name attached to, with a ready laugh and a willing heart. He is a great student living out his faith, a center and long snapper for his freshman football team, and a devoted Tennessee Volunteers fan. I was truly honored at the time, but I was 50, with two kids still at home, and far less reflective than I am today at 65.

With Aaron Michael, before the 2016 Tennessee-Texas A&M game

When Linda and I were in our late thirties, we had our fifth child and second son. We had named our older son for both his grandfathers, and he carried as his first name my father’s name, Kenneth, which is also my middle name. When our younger son was born, Nathan was an easy choice. His name means “gift of God,” and that is exactly what he felt like to us as a couple at that stage in our marriage. But what to do for his middle name? In the end, we chose just as my parents did, to make his father’s first name the son’s middle name.

Holding my son Nathan’s hand, with his sister Katie

Well, that little boy grew up, and last week his wife gave birth to a little boy. And they called him Michael. Judah Michael, to be precise. I must admit that tears have welled up in my eyes multiple times just thinking about that. I suppose it’s because of my age and watching the things that have driven me for so long slip quickly into the rear-view mirror. Maybe it is the constant reminder the last year and a half of how precious and fleeting life is, or maybe it was just holding him close to me this week and watching him breathe. But it has caused me to reflect in a new way on the closest thing we have to permanence on this earth, and that is the opportunity to shape the hearts and minds of those who come after us.

With Nathan Michael, Judah Michael, and The World’s Most Beautiful Woman

I suppose, in many cases, that is what naming is. I realized the other day that all our children and grandchildren have family names as part of their inheritance. Perhaps it is that longing for permanence, that searching for a deep identity, that causes us to do that. It may actually be that it is more than just wanting to be remembered. It is about creating something that lasts. But even if I am not around long enough to get to know Judah, he will ask the question—what was my grandfather Michael like? And my son will tell him stories of knee football games, of pitching practice in the backyard, of high school lunches at Pepe’s, of navigating relationships and the teen years on the way to developing a vision for his life. He will say, “Buddy, you and I have the same middle name!” And as that little boy nods his head, his Daddy’s thoughts will wander to his days as a little boy.

In the Eisenhower fifties, an Irish Catholic mom and a reluctant Protestant father from the greatest generation walked into the antiseptic smell of Mercy Hospital in Baltimore. And a few days later, they walked out with their third son. Their first two sons had family names, and one included the name of a war hero friend. But when it got around to their third, they gave him the father’s name as a middle name. The question was, what do we call him? What will his first name be? As usually happened in that family, where his older brother was named Patrick, the Irish Catholic mother won that argument.

And they called him Michael.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics, Family

I look out through the blinds at the twelve-foot-strip of grass that is my prison yard this morning. As I write, I am on day 3 of my banishment for testing positive for COVID, despite being fully vaccinated. The “privacy” fence out my window would feel more appropriate with a stretch of barbed wire across the top.

I managed to get through one week of classes, suitably confident because I tested negative for the umpteenth time the week before, this time as mandated by the University. Unlike virtually all those in my building, I wear my mask consistently around other people. I taught without it, but I put it on if anyone approached me. My wife, the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, encouraged me to get tested again after my first week’s teaching, and it is a good thing she did.

A man and a woman at the beach

I am asymptomatic, which in technical terms means I was able to yell at my computer screen for each of the Aggies’ turnovers Saturday night. I certainly feel better than the Kent State kicker who missed two short field goals in the last minutes, with all the gambling world waiting to see if the Golden Flashes could cover the spread. Now that is pressure.

My wife, who is vulnerable because of underlying conditions, has had one negative test since I was incarcerated. We pray for a second. Having each lost a parent in the last year, we are both reeling a bit, even though we know we have so much to be thankful for. It is one of those times in a marriage when you see hopelessness in the eyes of the one you love, and you feel powerless to change things.

I am scheduled to receive the monoclonal antibody treatment, Regeneron, because of my age. I await the results of a second test to confirm my positive status before undergoing the regimen. It is humbling to feel like a carrier and to feel like I need special attention because of my condition in life. I am used to being the one bearing up others through their challenges, particularly students much younger than me.

I have had several friends go to prison, and I have one long-time friend who will be sentenced soon. I am feeling new empathy for them this morning. But I pace this room like a caged cat when I am not feeling reflective or yelling at the Aggies. And I know in my mind that most prisoners do not have what I have; many have cells squeezing two people into half the space I have, with an open toilet. I struggle to understand what that does to a mind. How would you turn it into a positive and not go crazy?

Someone encouraged me to remember that the apostle Paul was in prison. But, to be honest, I am no Paul. And I know that Paul called himself the “chief of sinners,” but I am pretty confident he would not have yelled at Ainias Smith trying to field a punt over his shoulder inside the 10. And if I had not received the Curative curse word, “Positive,” I would have been doing so along with 97,000 of my closest friends in person, including my wife and brother-in-law. I wore my blue shirt for the 9/11 remembrance game anyway.

This week, assuming I am feeling well enough and not receiving an infusion, I will conduct my classes from the confines of this room. The past year and a half have provided me a lot of Zoom experience, and it is not an intimidating prospect. But oh, I miss being face to face, and not just with students—with anybody. It has become clearer to me in the last year than it has ever been that we are all designed to need others, even those of us who are introverts.

It is incredibly unnatural to make myself stay away, to pace the floor of this 12 by 15 room, and I am not alone in feeling this. I recognize that it is “selfless service,” and that it is my duty to wait. But I want so much to burst out that door and go to the office, or get a snow cone, or mow the lawn, or kiss my wife. (Well, maybe not mow the lawn.) Honestly, we are in a time like no other that I have experienced.

Perhaps, if I remain asymptomatic, a week from now I will be free. Or, if I get a mild case, two weeks. Of course, it could go badly, and it could be longer. My challenge today is to quiet my soul enough to reflect on what is going on inside me. I hoped to have built up the emotional and spiritual resources to deal with the hard things God allows to happen late in life. Our parents’ deaths and missing walking my daughter down the aisle during COVID made it clear I am not who I thought I was. Now I wonder when I might see my grandson, who is due in the next two weeks.

But my challenges are small, and I am very conscious of those who have lost loved ones to this scourge. Sitting still and being quiet is the least that could be asked of me. I am also sympathetic to those who are having to make difficult decisions about who meets for classes, and who goes to football games. Their challenge is so much greater than mine.

If I could wish for anything, it would be for fewer accusations of being stupid and foolish, or Luddites, or ignoring the science, or of government conspiracies. Even if I knew the source of this, or the volume of mistakes that have been made in trying to manage it, I would not be more informed about human nature. People do evil things, and people do stupid things. In fact, I study that for a living.

But what I am missing most is people, the same broken people who make mistakes of judgment and of arrogance. Long after I am done teaching, I will need people in my life. And I have no desire at this stage to burn the bridges that connect me to them, however much those bridges may swing and wobble in the wind. I would give anything right now to be with them. And this is true even though what I want more than anything is to protect my wife.

So, I will wait quietly on the Lord, and on the results of the second test, and on the infusion. I will step forward into this unknown week and do the best I can. My hope is that I will be a different and better person for having this experience.

But if we turn it over five times next week, all bets are off.

Categories: Athletics, Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Texas A&M

It was a late spring day as I rounded Loop 635 in my ’66 Chevy on the way to meet my girlfriend’s parents. There was not a lot impressive about me as a college freshman. I drove an unairconditioned station wagon with a leaky windshield, I was still 17 years old, and I was dating someone hopelessly cuter and sweeter than I could expect to hold onto. We had been dating for less than three months, but she was willing to let me visit her family on my way to spending the summer as an orientation advisor. She liked me, but if her family did not, I knew for a fact she had no desire to be a Capulet to my Montague. My mind was spinning as I circumnavigated the east side of Dallas, and a knot formed in my stomach. Even though my chances of impressing her parents were not great, I knew I needed to do something. I pulled off the freeway and bought flowers. For her mother.

This past week, I stood by the bed of that unsuspecting middle-aged woman who was the target of my efforts at persuasion, and I ushered her into glory alongside that freshman year girlfriend. A little over three years after that first meeting, I was calling her Mom, and for the last half of my life, since I lost my mother to cancer, she has been a Mom to me. For the past 9½ years, my wife has been her primary caregiver as she lived in assisted living close by; I have been comic relief. They have been sweet times of quiet talks and deepening relationships. Our children and grandchildren have had the chance to know her and to sense her love and approval.

Had I known more about her, I would not have thought that a small bouquet would be sufficient to win her over. A gifted pianist, she studied at Peabody, the oldest conservatory in the United States. She went on to get a master’s degree at Columbia, the only Ivy Leaguer in the family. When it looked like she might end up back in her small Pennsylvania town, she leapt at the opportunity to teach music in Texas. She boarded a train to Dallas and quickly found her way to the Highland Park Presbyterian Church. After church one day, she found herself in the back seat of a class member’s convertible with a local fellow who had grown up in the church, a redheaded boy with a ready laugh, who had enlisted in the Navy on his 18th birthday during World War II. Six weeks later, they were engaged, and shortly thereafter, they married.

I am sure Mom’s mother had grander dreams for her, but she spent her life investing in four children who are, to this day, devoted to her, and teaching piano to children. Undoubtedly her gifts were subsumed in the family that was the focus of her attention. She raised up no pianists, but four children who have lived meaningful lives and raised up their own children to have meaningful lives. And now some of those children are doing the same, with the family tree numbering in the forties.

If you had asked her about the impact of her life, she would not even have known how to address the question. She lived, and she loved, and she did the next good thing God called her to do. For years that was making foil dinners for a family of six that loved to camp and water ski, with none of the bells and whistles that might accompany boating today. She loved telling stories of her childhood, and though she was more than ready to leave Chambersburg in the early 1950’s, it always held a special place in her heart. She was modest in every way, except when it came to praising her children and grandchildren. She never drew attention to herself or stayed out of sorts for long.

And she was easily contented with a piano concerto or an old hymn. She lived through the heartbreak of losing both of her siblings at a very young age, and through the pain that brought to her parents. She never understood the racial biases she encountered riding the bus in Dallas; it never occurred to her that they could possibly exist. This was true of most of what was bad in this world; she could not imagine it, and she would not waste any time doing so. I have seen the same tendency in her daughter through the years.

Later this week, almost a half-century after I did it the first time, I expect to drive around Loop 635 again to her final resting place. If I do, I will know what I need to stop and bring. It may not be 1974 anymore, but I expect that knot to form in my stomach again. I thought that saying hello for the first time would be the hardest thing that I ever did in my relationship with Mom. But it never occurred to me then that the hardest thing I would ever do is say goodbye.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

When I was in elementary school, I lived with my four brothers in a Leave It to Beaver house in the suburbs of Richmond, Virginia. My brother Pat and I slept upstairs, as did our parents. On Sunday mornings, I could usually count on a theater performance between my Mom and Dad, and that always included only three lines.

My Mom was very particular about how she dressed, and it was important to her that her makeup was perfect to go to church. She loved to wear a pillbox hat like Jackie Kennedy wore, and it had to ride just so on her beautiful hair. Dad waited patiently downstairs while his five sons tended toward increasingly dysfunctional behavior. Inevitably, the performance would begin with my Dad shouting upstairs, “Kay, come on!” My Mom would always answer, “Coming!” And then would come the words that would define my Dad for me: “So is Christmas!”

Well, for Dad, Christmas has come. Over three decades ago we lost Mom to cancer, and there has not been a day since that time that Dad hasn’t longed to have her beside him. In the last two years, while I have had the privilege of Dad living near me, he has often wondered where she is. I never had the heart to tell him. Innumerable times I stared at him and nodded my head when he told me she had been gone for a week, or a month. The pictures in his room reflect that undying love. There is the glamorous photo of Mom in the corner of the room sent to him during World War II asking him, “Am I still in the doghouse?” There is the succession of photos from the 1940’s and 1950’s after getting married, and with one son, then two, then three. There are pictures of Mom, stylish in the middle years in the 1960’s and 1970’s. He has been waiting for her to arrive.

For a little boy who watched two people who loved each other dance the complex Kabuki dance that is marriage and parenthood, it is beyond ironic to consider that the day my Dad finally let go of life after 100 years was Christmas. I had six or seven hours with him that day to say goodbye. My wife says that he was just waiting for me to leave to let go. Perhaps he was. But I didn’t want to go.

These last two years have allowed me a friendship with Dad that was rare. He was one of the few I know who loved me for who I was, not for what I did. Being in the room with him was enough for him to be happy. I grew to treasure those moments sitting across from him, especially after I was allowed to begin visiting him again after a COVID-related hiatus.

But I was reminded on every visit what a lifelong love looks like, and what it is to be a product of that love. Last month would have been Mom and Dad’s 75th anniversary; instead, they had only 43 years together. Coincidentally, Linda and I have had 43 years together as well.

So, to me, every day I have with her now is a gift not given to my Dad, and one that I need to treasure. Perhaps there will be a day when I sit in a room, and my kids come to visit, and I ask them where Mom is. And perhaps they will nod knowingly, and sadly, and wonder what in the world they can say to me.

Here’s what they can say to me. Dad, she’s gone home, and she’s waiting. This room is not all there is, and there is hope beyond life. We know because you taught us it was true, and we believe it for ourselves. And, believe it or not, Dad, that life beyond is even sweeter than Mom.

Dad, Christmas is coming.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics, Family, Texas A&M

What a head-scratching year it has been. Some of our problems may take decades to solve, or even be unsolvable. But some should not be problems at all. If you had told me that the thing that would take COVID off the front page would be the inability of people to count ballots, I would never have believed it.

But the problem is deeper than that. People on both sides over several elections have been concerned about the accuracy and timeliness of the ballot count in several critical states. And they make a number of conflicting claims that the other side quickly finds ways to debunk. The fact is that most states were able to complete credible counts in a short time frame to produce a result that people trust. But controversies in a half dozen states undermine the trust that is necessary to us functioning as the United States.

If we have learned anything, it is that we need ballot counters of unimpeachable integrity and great competence. Beyond that, we need systems that provide a reliable ballot count that defuses voter fraud while providing adequate opportunity for all to vote. CPAs are uniquely qualified to fulfill both needs; the first could be accomplished by the next election. The second is harder to accomplish, but manageable. CPA firms have entire practices built around systems design and testing internal controls, and they could help states develop effective ballot collection and counting systems.

States can improve the effectiveness of those systems by not setting rules that are convoluted and multi-pronged and therefore open themselves up to cheating, undermining the systems. There are good reasons to give extensions and make exceptions for people like those in overseas military service. However, if I give my students two extra weeks to complete an assignment, I promise you that most of them will take two extra weeks. It is incumbent on voters to take some responsibility, not to make it as easy as possible for every single person to vote and undermine the reliability of the system by doing so. In return, those voters have a right to expect that their vote will be counted and that it will be counted accurately.

States will also need to work together to seek out a common technology platform that has long-term support readily available from the software vendor. While states have different budgets and officials must be accountable to the state’s taxpayers, federal support for the effort should be reasonably expected because of the impact of state systems on national elections. All of the major CPA firms are capable of designing and implementing these systems, and they could leverage their implementation experience in early-adopting states to benefit other states. Performing these services for fees sensitive to taxpayers’ ability to pay would be another way for CPAs and technology professionals to contribute to the greater good.

So it is time to give the job of ballot counting in the US to certified public accountants (CPAs). I am proud to be a CPA and to educate future CPAs for our profession. The population of CPAs in the US is more than adequate to provide this service on a pro bono basis, and it would be more helpful to our nation than sponsoring one more fun run or engaging in activities where we bring no more competence to bear than the average person. CPAs are already known for counting ballots for events like the Academy Awards.

People might say that as long as we have competent observers at ballot counts, we don’t need high-powered counters. But any auditor will tell you that financial statements that are consistently produced accurately by clients are a better protection than auditors against misstatement and fraud.

To CPAs, I say that it is our duty to take this on—that we ought to do it. Our job as certified public accountants is to (1) protect the public and (2) maximize truth in the marketplace. That marketplace is usually the financial marketplace, where CPAs both produce and audit financial statements, as well as prepare millions of tax returns. But what better way to protect the public, and even our democracy, than to inject reliability and objectivity into election returns?

CPAs serve others’ interests in many ways, one of the best being the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program that provides income tax help to many who could not otherwise afford it. I have never heard anything but praise for its impact; it is genuinely helpful.

So let’s count the vote and get it right, and promptly. There is one profession that is uniquely prepared to do this, the one with “count” in its name. It is time for CPAs to step up and partner with state and local election officials to make this happen. I am willing to commit 40 hours of my time in future elections to ensure that the count is not perfect, but objectively accurate. We can disagree on the issues and still trust one another that election results are reliable.

What we need is a group of people willing to move forward with this. I challenge all my CPA colleagues to commit to providing 20 hours of service, pro bono, to count the vote in each election going forward. And I encourage election officials to be open-minded about allowing that to happen.

Let’s count the ballots and get it right next time. There is no reason at all to go through this again. Let the CPAs do it.


Michael K. Shaub, CPA, PhD, is clinical professor of accounting and the Deloitte Professional Program Director Professor in the James Benjamin Department of Accounting at Texas A&M University.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

As real fall approaches and the air becomes crisp, I peer out at my lawn’s trim lines and think how amazing it looks. And then I realize that is because no growth is taking place. Winter is approaching, and though I won’t have the problems of weeds and bugs to contend with, the fact is that everything will be dead.

 

What a metaphor. I have spent this year trying to reign in the out-of-control weeds of life brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is the weed of classroom management, now having taught three semesters with some form of Zoomania, the latest of which is a hybrid classroom divided relatively equally between images on a screen and a room of people I know only by their eyebrows and foreheads. One fun outcome of doing a Zoom dinner with my students recently was seeing the entire faces of my classroom students.

 

All I can think of is that I want this long, hot summer to end, and the weeds to go away. I want my classroom the way it was. But it’s not just the classroom management weeds that bother me. I always expect to wrestle with dollar weed in my yard. Many of the weeds that have sprung up remind me of what happens when I neglect the “weed and feed” fertilizer that I regularly apply to my lawn. They are strange in a variety of ways. Some are like vines that stick to everything. Some prompt a flower, but break off at the surface of the ground. What is clear is that I have no idea what to do about them.

 

Prominent among the emotional weeds has been the feeling of loneliness and separation that has accompanied the pandemic. Even when I am on campus, the largely empty halls and sidewalks remind me that something is seriously wrong. Almost no one comes in my office door; the student workers are even reticent to poke their heads in. There are almost no faculty members in my hallway, though there are many in other parts of the department. But the big thing missing is students. The feeling of isolation extends to home as well. Though I am fortunate to be sequestered away with my favorite person on earth, eight months of separation from children and grandchildren is taking its toll. Only in the last couple of weeks have we been able to see our parents (for an hour a week) in assisted living.

 

What we have never experienced before is the prominence of invisible safety concerns. I have never been one who thought twice about touching a doorknob or a gas pump. Now, it seems, everything outside our home is a potential carrier. This level of preoccupation is emotionally unhealthy, regardless of where you stand on the issue of its necessity. I am given to restraining myself and masking to protect my wife’s and my health, but also because I consider others’ interests important. But the mental gymnastics I do on a normal day just to get from Point A to Point B are exhausting.

 

Along with these things comes the economic uncertainty attached to a world where everything is potentially dangerous. While a few companies have capitalized on this market opportunity, so many businesses have succumbed to the reality of having no solutions to overcome the reticence or inability of people to simply show up. While today it is a long string of restaurants, bars, and other small businesses, colleges and universities have quickly recognized their own vulnerability should the plague be prolonged.

 

The level of self-control necessary to get past this is difficult to maintain in an emotionally stable world. And this is not an emotionally stable world. My Auditing classes have done a project this summer and fall examining restaurants’ safety protocols around ordering and delivering food, among other things. What surprised me the most in comparing the two classes’ projects is how much restaurants have relaxed their safety protocols in a few months. No one sees this as normal, or preferable. And it is hard to keep doing it.

 

Despite all this, what has heartened me most has been the sheer delight of being with students, and of experiencing with them this deep need for connectedness. I tell them, as an auditor and a classroom teacher, that facial recognition is critical to me in understanding my environment. It seems to be for them as well. But all semester long, until our dinner, they have only seen me behind a mask. Yet I have seen them invest heavily, not just in the course requirements, but in truly being present in the classroom experience. I will always remember them for this.

 

So here’s to the weeds that show that growth is still taking place, even at this stage of my career. I would never ask for them, and if I could spray Round Up on them and make them go away, I probably would. But my hope is that the experience will give me the wisdom I need to finish well, and to be there for those who are in real need right now.

 

Because they are all around us. And they need to know that they are not alone.

 

 

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

Fifteen years ago, I was driving home from a speaking engagement at Texas A&M University that had evolved into a discussion about a potential faculty position. I remember stopping at a Starbucks and feeling that sense of elation that goes with the knowledge that you are about to jump off a cliff and take a risk you didn’t think you would take. And the reason I was willing to take that risk was the word of one person—Jim Benjamin.

As I have often told people, I gave up job security for job satisfaction in order to come here as a faculty member. But I also knew that there was something different about this place, something embedded in the culture that I could not have described to you at that point. During an earlier visit to speak at A&M, I brought students from my university that I was mentoring so that they could see what a big program felt like. What I didn’t expect is for the Aggies in the large lecture hall to surround my students and treat them as friends.

What grows a culture like that? Of course, I am well aware that this university is different in many ways. But what I saw that night, and what I have experienced for the last fourteen years here, is a direct result of the life investment of Jim Benjamin. By the time I visited here, our Professional Program in Accounting was well established as one of the best in the nation. It showed in CPA exam performance and in job placement. But from my first year here, the distinctive of the program was the type of student it attracted, and the type of supporter those students grew to become for the program.

Jim’s steady hand on the helm for the past 38 years (38!) as department head has allowed us to build a national reputation without major drama. He has, of course, made unpopular decisions from time to time. But they were few and far between, and I never sensed they were made with animosity. He is always predisposed to give someone the benefit of the doubt in their motives, even though he is wise enough to know what those motives likely are. I have seen him repeatedly use a light hand when I would have come down hard. While he is a realist about what people can be expected to do, he is unfailingly optimistic that people around here will do more than their fair share. And, remarkably, they do.

A faculty without egos would not be a faculty. But I have never been around a group of professors in my career who were, on the whole, less self-interested or more student-focused than this group. And they were recruited here—often, in fact, drawn here—by the culture of unselfishness that they had seen so many other successful faculty members buy into. And that culture was shaped and nurtured by one man—Jim Benjamin.

That’s why they name a department for you. That’s why they keep re-appointing you to term after term as department head, long after the guidelines would seemingly allow it. In normal times the past six months would have been a constant celebration of his well-invested life, with toasts and testimonials in all kinds of settings. Instead, next Monday, he will walk away quietly into his well-earned retirement, and the department he built will continue to reflect the values he has lived. May we always do so.

I will be where he is soon, but without the impact he has had. I shake my head in wonder at the thousands of lives he has touched deeply, giving them the quiet confidence that all is well and that, in time, they will be able to accomplish their goals. That sure, steady leadership that is in such short supply in this world is walking out of our building and into the sunset.

And all of us watch, out of respect, until his shadow on the horizon is completely out of view.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

Today is the first day of the most unique fall semester of my career as a professor. I will be back in a physical classroom for the first time in months, masked and ready to go. In one of my classes, over 90 percent of students have decided to attend in person. This speaks to me of the longing for human contact, and the fundamentally different experience of even the most humdrum college classroom when compared to a technology link.

Dr. Mike Shaub, in a Baltimore Orioles maskSocial media is atwitter with stories of reckless college students gathering in droves, and the anticipation is that it is only a matter of time before universities go online. Some prominent universities already have. But there is a certain recklessness, at least a modest amount of risk-seeking behavior, in all of us who are not hypochondriacs. Certain needs will prompt us to assume risk because of what we get in return. We may try to tightly control the extent of that risk. But five months into this COVID adventure, we all have a much better read on our propensity to assume risk.

And, to be honest, it is a lot higher across the spectrum than I would have guessed, and not just for college students. My desire for normalcy in the classroom and in my workplace drive me to assume risk. I feel pressure from peers in my church community to regather, even though it still seems like a bad idea to me. Most people who know me would see me as risk averse; I am, after all, an accountant. And yet later on today I will be face-to-face with new MS Accounting students in a professional seminar in a classroom down the hall.

Many who see college students as selfish would characterize professors going into the classroom as heroic. I think that is a bit of a caricature. Of course, there are a number of college students engaging in purely self-interested behavior because they believe the downside risk is minimal. This is nothing new, and it is the reason we have organizations like CARPOOL at Texas A&M to minimize the consequences of this type of behavior by offering rides home from bars to those who need them.

But professors have needs, too. And when I look in the mirror, I have to ask myself—why have I chosen face-to-face instruction rather than teaching online? Part of it is that I taught online in the spring and summer. To be honest, it would be a lot easier than the hybrid version I will start with this fall, where I try to attend to the needs of students in the classroom and those Zooming in. But I give up a lot sitting in front of a screen, physically detached from my students. My career has been about life-on-life investment, and as hard as I try to make the online experience seamless for my students, it is not the same. Am I being selfless, or is it just evident to me that the experience of being a professor without human contact is, for me, a lifeless one, and less worth doing?

I have often told my students, “If you can’t self-regulate, you WILL be regulated.” I certainly know people who will wear a mask only under force of rule, and complaining all the while. But it is pretty clear at this point that the only thing that can make this fall semester happen the way we want it to is for students and faculty to self-regulate at uncomfortable levels. Around here, we call that selfless service.

Can we do it? Who knows? I know that I will be washing my hands every time I walk by a bathroom, and soaking my paper cuts in hand sanitizer constantly. (Again, I’m an accountant.) I have the equivalent of a “No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service” sign on my office door. I have an assortment of masks for every occasion, from N-95 on down to casual dinner wear. The last thing I want to do is bring this scourge home to the World’s Most Beautiful Woman, and not just because I will be relegated to a distant room (or a tent outside) for two weeks. Protecting her is all that really matters.

It is hard to know how much I will resemble last year’s Dr. Shaub as I go back in the classroom. I feel like a bit of an imposter. But if it protects her, I am okay with that. Whoever I am, I am hopeful, and strangely happy, about this opportunity. I want to do the things I can to prolong it, and I want my students to have fun learning along the way.

But who am I to criticize them for being risk-seeking? My presence with them says that they are not alone. Here’s hoping we are all able to self-regulate sufficiently to prolong the joy that comes from the beauty that is the university classroom.


Explore my recent post “100” and the news story it prompted on KBTX.com.

 

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Politics, Society, Texas A&M

In the midst of a pandemic that has made me more risk averse than I have ever been, I am witness to a standard of longevity that stands as a monument to tenacity and grace. This week, my Dad, who survived Iwo Jima among a series of Pacific battles that engaged the 4th Marine Division, will turn 100.

When I was growing up, my chain-smoking Dad was the last person I would have thought would live to a ripe old age. I am pretty confident that I never saw my Dad participate in athletic activity when I lived at home, unless you count yelling at Little League umpires. He never worked out between the ages of 30 and 70. He was not careful about what he ate or drank. He was just my Dad, and not anyone you would think of as an icon.

Today, he is one of the most popular people on the third floor of the Isle at Watercrest, still getting around with his walker and, whenever possible, refusing help. But for the last four months, this has been invisible to us, and we have relied on others to provide all of his care and comfort. We are the outsiders, banned from visiting because of the COVID threat to residents.

I would give anything to sit across the room from him in the reading chair that I bought when he moved here a year and a half ago. We would have a meandering conversation about life in Pennsylvania shooting rabbits with his father, or coming of age in Baltimore, or the war. None of the discussion would involve politics or the Astros, as it might have a decade or less ago.

We would look at pictures of Mom on the wall, gone three decades now, but very much alive in his heart still. Next year Linda and I will pass the number of years given to my parents together, but I can guarantee you that the fire still burns bright for my Dad, and it gives me hope that we can continue to kindle something that our kids and grandkids will use in the years ahead to warm their lives.

The pictures in his room also include frozen moments in time of my parents just after the war, and then with one, two, and three children. The last of these is my first birthday, on the porch in Baltimore in my Mom’s arms with me wearing a classic birthday hat, with my two older brothers looking mildly disinterested. I have not seen these pictures for four months because of COVID. But I see them clearly in my mind, and they connect me to my Dad in ways that are hard to describe.

One day, I suppose, similar pictures will hang above my recliner in a similar place, telling a story of days already long ago in which my life was formed and shaped. And my children and grandchildren will, I hope, visit long enough to have that unique mixture of sadness and sweetness that goes with encountering life at the stage where the battery is flashing.

But amidst the long, slow decline, we have this amazing moment. 100. How could it be that he could have gotten to this point, and that he still acts as if the road goes on forever? This man who has witnessed over 40 percent of the history of our nation, who was born just after World War I and the flu pandemic and while Woodrow Wilson was still president, soldiers on in the summer of COVID. And he does it without a single visitor, though we are chomping at the bit to be with him.

All the cultural battles being fought today are the culmination of history he has witnessed. When I was young, it felt like I could never make him happy. Now, he never complains, unless you try to help him. When I talk to him, one of his most common phrases is, “So be it.” It is a mix of resignation and contentment. After Mom died, he spent almost thirty years alone in the home I grew up in. I suppose he is as prepared as anyone I know to be alone in this pandemic, and I am pretty certain that he is content with the periodic visits throughout the day from his caregivers.

But, if I am being honest, I am not. I want to see my Dad, and hug his neck, and let him know face-to-face how much I love him. I almost never talk to him without him telling me how proud he is of me. How many men my age are hearing that? How many men of any age are hearing that?

I have the voice of my father telling me I am worthwhile for one more day. I do not take this day for granted.

I love you, Dad. Here’s to you. 100.

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Family, Friends, Religion, Society, Texas A&M

On this beautiful, sunny day I write from the prison that my home office has become because of COVID-19. In another life, I would have climbed on a plane last night, flown to New York City, and walked my beautiful daughter down the aisle to the waiting arms of her beloved. Instead, I am fielding emails and conducting Zoom calls that are necessary to my roles as administrator and professor. I have the privilege of teaching 103 students online for the rest of the semester. Meanwhile, I cheer myself listening to the music of a band whose concert I will not be attending next month after all.

This is the new normal for so many of us in Aggieland and beyond. We have had our organic culture turned upside down by perhaps the greatest worldwide threat to health in a century. We are second-besting our ways through days and waking up multiple times at night. We are trying to create the kinds of structures that allow us to function, and few of us are thinking of being normal, or even more outrageously, actually prospering in the circumstances.

But we should. In all the disappointments and injustices that face me today are the seedlings of new opportunities that I never knew existed. I am communicating with students in new ways and delegating responsibility in ways I never have before. Zoom connecting is not the same as face-to-face, but particularly in smaller groups that are the equivalent to staying after class to ask questions, I am finding that students stay around for quite a while and listen to each other’s questions. That doesn’t happen in the regular classroom. The hunger that at least half of them have for connection makes them more willing to find value in the classroom, even though it is hard staring at a screen, and I can’t walk up to them if they are having trouble staying awake.

Our students are dealing with what they have lost and, for many of them, they have lost a lot. They are separated from their friends, and even those living in the protective world of their families are mostly there reluctantly. Many feel overwhelmed by the workload demanded by courses that were changed on the fly, and many have no idea when they will be able to take the CPA exam that they have been diligently studying for all semester. They will not physically attend their final Muster on campus and commencement is, at a minimum, postponed.

Some say that the coronavirus will propel us into the brave new world of teaching because of what is possible online. They say that the burden of mounting college debt and the near-universal availability of technology in the U.S. marks the end of universities as we have known them. But I disagree. I can’t imagine any students who are going through this not valuing what it is to plop down in a trusted professor’s office to bare their souls, or to gather with friends at the Chicken, or Breakaway, or Harry’s, or just to sit in the MSC flag room and listen to the piano while you pretend to study. Perhaps we can do online education at a high level; that doesn’t mean it is what we were meant to do. At the very least, it will compel us to think seriously about what we value, and what is worth paying for.

My daughter is happily married, the ceremony safely performed by her pastor in a city that has become known as the epicenter of the pandemic. The pictures are beautiful. She painted her fingernails green for the 100% Irish grandmother she is named for, and she wore the small pearl bracelet I bought for her in Beijing’s Pearl Market. And hopefully, soon, we will have a full ceremony that involves all the family, and we will dance together.

I face the fact that there are many things beyond my control, things that I can’t make right. But the important things are in place; I prayed, after all, for a man who would truly love her, and not for a ceremony. And I asked for the chance to spend my life investing in people, one of the greatest gifts I have been given in my life. Both of those prayers have been answered.

Realizing how finite I am makes me more willing to walk away from the computer and be okay with saying, “I can’t solve that problem, at least not today.” I have a different empathy for my wife, and for what she goes through as she cares for our parents that we are banned from seeing for the indefinite future because of the threat to their health.

None of us asked for this. Tears will flow as a result of our disappointments. May they water the soil of our lives and bear fruit in a new level of compassion for one another, and especially for those with whom we disagree. May Aggies everywhere reach into my students’ lives and let them know that everything is going to be okay. And may those of us entrusted with investing our lives in students, if we were not already aware, embrace what a gift we have been given.

Nothing feels normal now. But a day will come when it does. And on that day, as on this day, there is nowhere that I would rather be than right here in Aggieland.

Interesting read? Here’s another:

Philanthropy & Pandemic

Learn more:

James Benjamin Department of Accounting
5-year Professional Program in Accounting

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

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