Bottom Line Ethics

Lead Story

Harambe and Polyanna

Michael K. Shaub, July 21st, 2022

I recently wrote an essay describing my view of the impact of the accounting profession’s latest cheating scandal. My basic view is that we have proven repeatedly as a profession that we do not deserve to be self-governing, with the latest example being firm personnel cheating on CPA ethics exams. Some people in the profession who like me have been checking on my emotional health after reading that piece. Others just doubt my mental acuity and would consider my view of expecting truth-telling and honesty in the profession as being a “Polyanna” approach to our problems.

My friend Matt Morton recently spoke about the incident a few years ago involving Harambe the Gorilla (may he rest in peace) at the Cincinnati Zoo. When a little boy fell into his enclosure, Harambe decided to investigate, dragging the boy around and not heeding the zookeepers’ calls to come inside. This led to a difficult decision for the zookeepers, who shot the gorilla for fear that a tranquilizer would not work quickly enough before the boy was harmed.

After this incident, people blamed the zoo for the exhibit’s design and fencing, and the mother for losing track of her child. Some even blamed the existence of zoos. The hashtag #JusticeForHarambe circulated on the internet. But no one blamed Harambe because, in Matt Morton’s words, “That’s what gorillas do.”

This reminds me of the argument being made to explain the behavior of young professionals and students who get caught up in cheating scandals. You must expect that people are going to cheat given the opportunity because they must keep up with their peers or they are biologically inclined to do so by evolutionary responses to their environment. All we can do is put in the types of controls that will be effective in preventing and detecting it, hoping to reduce the opportunity, or even the motivation, to cheat. Telling people to be better is just spitting in the wind. Those who hold these views do not consider themselves cynical in the same way that I do not consider myself naïve. We may both be fooling ourselves.

But I have seen throughout my career, and particularly post-Sarbanes-Oxley, many students whose perspectives have been changed through an extensive consideration of their duties as CPAs, particularly in the accounting ethics course. A recent paper by Zach Kowaleski of the University of Texas and his co-authors provides evidence that financial advisors who receive more training in rules and ethics actually behave better.

In fact, I think it is silly, and an abdication of responsibility, to say that we cannot significantly influence the ethical behavior of our students or of those under us in the accounting firm. We influence studying behaviors, love for the material, and student interaction behaviors every day in the classroom. Accounting firms influence employees’ views of working late, teach them to sell better, and force feed them technical skills. Why are people’s moral views somehow unassailable by those who lead them?

There is nothing magical in moral learning that is less able to be shaped than any other type of learning. Of course, there are powerful incentives internally that cause people to cross lines, and human nature is unreliable when it comes to doing the right thing. Give a child no moral direction and see what happens.

But the claims of powerlessness in moral education and training are overstated. I have heard for many years that students are fully formed morally by the time they reach the university, and there is little that you can do about it. This has been a sort of received wisdom applied to no other area of reasoning. Despite that, numerous student organizations are designed entirely to change people’s views on a variety of moral issues—to morally educate them.

I need moral education. There are ethical issues I have not encountered yet and that I need to be prepared to navigate effectively. I need to be a better moral leader for people who come from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is not easy work. But in the accounting profession, we are used to undertaking difficult tasks without complaining, of adapting to environments without losing our north star, of overcoming obstacles, of speaking the truth even when it makes others uncomfortable.

We have a chance to preserve something important, not given over to the cynicism of the day, but battling against it by relentlessly speaking truth into society in reliable ways that require others to pay attention. It also requires not undermining our objectivity by selling out to the inevitable temptation to be a hanger-on rather than a true friend to our clients. We need to be “trusted advisors” not because we will tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to know. And the same holds true for us to be “trusted professors” who will help to preserve a profession we all love. We need to tell our students, our clients, and ourselves when we are crossing lines that harm others and undermine a society and an economy that rely on being grounded in truth.

You are not going to learn this on social media. Some will learn the principles in their families or in their faith settings. But you certainly ought to be able to learn it in the accounting classroom. And it is incumbent upon the Big 4 firms, the AICPA, and the rest of the accounting profession to make it a priority to do this before we lose our trusted role in society.

Call me Polyanna if you like. But I am not teaching Harambe in my classroom. I am teaching incredible minds capable of doing far more than settling for whatever makes them richest or most “successful,” regardless of the impact on others or on their own souls. And for as long as I am in the classroom, they are going to be treated with that level of respect.

I may not change a profession. But I am going to change some lives.

I recently wrote an essay describing my view of the impact of the accounting profession’s latest cheating scandal. My basic view is that we have proven repeatedly as a profession that we do not deserve to be self-governing, with the latest example being firm personnel cheating on CPA ethics exams. Some people in the profession who like me have been checking on my emotional health after reading that piece. Others just doubt my mental acuity and would consider my view of expecting truth-telling and honesty in the profession as being a “Polyanna” approach to our problems.

My friend Matt Morton recently spoke about the incident a few years ago involving Harambe the Gorilla (may he rest in peace) at the Cincinnati Zoo. When a little boy fell into his enclosure, Harambe decided to investigate, dragging the boy around and not heeding the zookeepers’ calls to come inside. This led to a difficult decision for the zookeepers, who shot the gorilla for fear that a tranquilizer would not work quickly enough before the boy was harmed.

After this incident, people blamed the zoo for the exhibit’s design and fencing, and the mother for losing track of her child. Some even blamed the existence of zoos. The hashtag #JusticeForHarambe circulated on the internet. But no one blamed Harambe because, in Matt Morton’s words, “That’s what gorillas do.”

This reminds me of the argument being made to explain the behavior of young professionals and students who get caught up in cheating scandals. You must expect that people are going to cheat given the opportunity because they must keep up with their peers or they are biologically inclined to do so by evolutionary responses to their environment. All we can do is put in the types of controls that will be effective in preventing and detecting it, hoping to reduce the opportunity, or even the motivation, to cheat. Telling people to be better is just spitting in the wind. Those who hold these views do not consider themselves cynical in the same way that I do not consider myself naïve. We may both be fooling ourselves.

But I have seen throughout my career, and particularly post-Sarbanes-Oxley, many students whose perspectives have been changed through an extensive consideration of their duties as CPAs, particularly in the accounting ethics course. A recent paper by Zach Kowaleski of the University of Texas and his co-authors provides evidence that financial advisors who receive more training in rules and ethics actually behave better.

In fact, I think it is silly, and an abdication of responsibility, to say that we cannot significantly influence the ethical behavior of our students or of those under us in the accounting firm. We influence studying behaviors, love for the material, and student interaction behaviors every day in the classroom. Accounting firms influence employees’ views of working late, teach them to sell better, and force feed them technical skills. Why are people’s moral views somehow unassailable by those who lead them?

There is nothing magical in moral learning that is less able to be shaped than any other type of learning. Of course, there are powerful incentives internally that cause people to cross lines, and human nature is unreliable when it comes to doing the right thing. Give a child no moral direction and see what happens.

But the claims of powerlessness in moral education and training are overstated. I have heard for many years that students are fully formed morally by the time they reach the university, and there is little that you can do about it. This has been a sort of received wisdom applied to no other area of reasoning. Despite that, numerous student organizations are designed entirely to change people’s views on a variety of moral issues—to morally educate them.

I need moral education. There are ethical issues I have not encountered yet and that I need to be prepared to navigate effectively. I need to be a better moral leader for people who come from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints. This is not easy work. But in the accounting profession, we are used to undertaking difficult tasks without complaining, of adapting to environments without losing our north star, of overcoming obstacles, of speaking the truth even when it makes others uncomfortable.

We have a chance to preserve something important, not given over to the cynicism of the day, but battling against it by relentlessly speaking truth into society in reliable ways that require others to pay attention. It also requires not undermining our objectivity by selling out to the inevitable temptation to be a hanger-on rather than a true friend to our clients. We need to be “trusted advisors” not because we will tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to know. And the same holds true for us to be “trusted professors” who will help to preserve a profession we all love. We need to tell our students, our clients, and ourselves when we are crossing lines that harm others and undermine a society and an economy that rely on being grounded in truth.

You are not going to learn this on social media. Some will learn the principles in their families or in their faith settings. But you certainly ought to be able to learn it in the accounting classroom. And it is incumbent upon the Big 4 firms, the AICPA, and the rest of the accounting profession to make it a priority to do this before we lose our trusted role in society.

Call me Polyanna if you like. But I am not teaching Harambe in my classroom. I am teaching incredible minds capable of doing far more than settling for whatever makes them richest or most “successful,” regardless of the impact on others or on their own souls. And for as long as I am in the classroom, they are going to be treated with that level of respect.

I may not change a profession. But I am going to change some lives.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

I have been a CPA for almost 40 years, and it is hard to surprise me with any headline. But I will admit to being flabbergasted by the announcement that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was fining Big 4 accounting firm Ernst & Young (EY) $100 million because hundreds of its employees had cheated on ethics exams required to become a CPA and on other continuing education exams. This has similarities to what happened at KPMG a few years ago and at PwC Canada earlier this year. What was most interesting was the ferocity of the SEC’s response, both in the amount of the fine and in the language used to describe the actions of EY staff.

My initial response was anger. Three of the four largest firms have now been implicated in this same kind of cheating on internal exams, though EY’s cheating on ethics exams required to finalize becoming a CPA seems unique. There seems to be a long pattern, stretching back at least a decade, of EY staff exploiting software weaknesses and simply sharing answers, despite repeated documentation and warnings by management and some level of internal sanctions.

The SEC also claims that management and EY’s attorneys were misleading when the SEC inquired whether there were any current dishonesty issues a few years ago, opting for its own internal inquiry instead of facilitating the SEC’s. This seems to have driven the amount of the judgment.

I am moving past anger into sadness because I know that in some ways, I am part of two institutions that are responsible for these egregious lapses in moral integrity. The EY problem is not just a public accounting issue; many of these people were cheating on ethics exams to become CPAs. They were brand new to the profession. That means they didn’t learn to engage in this behavior from the profession; they learned it in our classrooms.

To be fair, they actually learned it in middle school and high school, and they were rewarded for it with high class rankings and admissions to the best business schools. But the business schools, and the universities themselves, are greenhouses for this kind of cheating. They emphasize group projects where maintaining any type of integrity controls is vastly expensive for the professor. Navigating the university sanctions process has become more arduous, and the penalties for cheating students weaker, over the course of my career.

Some of us object, or push back, or try to institute tight controls to prevent it. But fewer and fewer students prove to be trustworthy, much to my chagrin, and they almost never report it when anyone else engages in dishonest behavior. This was true at EY as well; there is a distressing lack of moral courage in our classrooms and in the profession. The SEC enforcement proceeding commented extensively on the EY professionals who knew about it and did nothing. We have normalized this pattern of moral deviance—cheat, notice, roll your eyes—and its corrosive effect on education and professionalism is rarely discussed seriously in our hallowed halls. But it is moral cowardice.

One of the most degrading experiences of my career was watching my students during COVID taking exams on Zoom as if I was a prison guard monitoring the cameras. I always have controls in my face-to-face classes, even more than the students think I do. It is part of recognizing incentives—of trusting, but verifying. But it is not dehumanizing; even the term “lockdown browser” makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. More than the disease itself, or teaching on Zoom, this is what drained away my reserves and diminished my love for the classroom the last few years. It is a huge loss to me.

What are we going to do about it at the university level? I can tell you—absolutely nothing. What we are going to do is to deliver education ever more efficiently and let the chips fall where they may when it comes to the accuracy of student performance evaluations. All COVID has done is teach us new ways we can generate revenue from online programs that are bound to proliferate as a result. And if you think you are controlling cheating in these online programs, short of a CPA-exam-type testing environment, you are fooling yourself. Cheating facilitation firms Course Hero and Chegg have market caps of $14.1 billion and $2.3 billion, respectively. We have seen their impact here in Mays Business School.

I have no idea why the public would trust us as a profession to handle important integrity issues like auditor independence well when we are willing to compromise our integrity for so little. Twenty years on from Andersen’s collapse after Enron and WorldCom, I would have hoped we would have made a case for why the accounting profession deserved an opportunity at redemption, a second chance to be self-regulating after having learned some hard lessons. Instead, we have done the opposite.

There is no case to be made for self-regulation in the accounting profession. We are technically competent, and we can solve a lot of problems for clients. But the public we are assigned to protect, the shareholders and investors, trust us at their peril. It feels just like it did 25 years ago, with the Big 4 firms itching to expand their revenue streams and, if they are not allowed to use the audit to leverage those opportunities, looking for the first opportunity to jettison it and become a consulting firm.

The only reason that accounting is a profession is because we have assumed the responsibility, the duty, to protect the public. In exchange, we are the only ones who can provide an audit. But we have proven unwilling to even assume the duty to take a simple exam honestly. An ethics exam, for heaven’s sake! How can we be trusted to assume larger duties?

The only way to control the behavior of those who refuse their duties is to make the cost high enough to make them stop. When it comes to universities, there is no stomach for that, and I expect no change in the level of cheating we are seeing. But the SEC’s message is this: you have a duty as a profession, whether you recognize it or not. And if you don’t, we will make you pay.

And when you get to that point, you are watching a profession die.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

I am following with great interest one of the most significant fraud trials of the past decade, that of Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of biotech startup Theranos. The company’s central product was a machine known as the Edison, which was supposed to provide a wide range of blood tests on just a few drops of blood taken by pricking a finger. It had the potential to revolutionize the blood testing industry, and the intent was to roll the machines out in pharmacy settings, including at Walgreens. Holmes’s vision and persuasiveness were sufficient to enable her to raise nearly a billion dollars in capital to support the dream, and no one ever asked for audited financial statements. As it turned out, there was a giant disconnect between what Holmes advertised and the actual performance of the machines.

John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal broke the story through a series of articles beginning in 2015, eventually resulting in his book, Bad Blood. The whistleblower in the case, Tyler Shultz, is the grandson of former Theranos board member, George Shultz, who was Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State. The younger Shultz was employed by Theranos after graduating from Stanford, and he quickly became aware of the inconsistency of the company’s testing and of the willingness of upper management to cover it up from outsiders. He captivated my Accounting Ethics students this spring as he told his story.

Elizabeth Holmes is not your everyday felon. As she battles for her freedom in the eighth week of her fraud trial, she portrays the quiet resolve of someone who has always, in the end, won. And this may indeed happen for her again.

There are several reasons why Ms. Holmes may never go to prison for her actions as CEO. Her trial, which began over two months ago, has devolved into a grind for a jury pool that is rapidly shrinking. The sheer number of witnesses going over similar facts about who knew what, and who was responsible, would be a lot for me to bear, and I am fascinated by cases like this one. For the average Californian who has a job and a family, and who is being called aside to do this as a civic duty, the requirements to focus must be unimaginable. One juror has been dismissed for working on Sudokus while the trial was going on. Another juror was allowed to leave after expressing to the judge that she could not send Elizabeth Holmes to prison because her religion believes in forgiveness.

In addition, there is the looming specter of the trial following hers of Sunny Balwani, her former partner and Theranos’s chief operating officer. In some senses, the defense has tried to make the current trial a trial of Balwani, holding him up as insulating Holmes from things that were nefarious, so that she never knowingly signed off on anything fraudulent. Balwani’s reputation as a bully certainly helps Holmes’s case. Without any resolution from a previous trial, the defense has significant opportunities to introduce reasonable doubt into the jury’s mind about what Ms. Holmes knew when.

In the entrepreneurial world, many celebrate the concept of “Fake it till you make it,” and those who perhaps exaggerate their progress early in the startup process are lionized as heroes once the company is a stable success. Holmes went beyond the normal startup founder,

captivating a broad audience with her persona and the back story of a teenage Stanford dropout who was just wasting her time taking classes when she already knew what she wanted to do. In addition, she was able to recruit investments from, and fill board seats with, a cadre of influential investors and politicians, earning her the title at one point of the youngest U.S. female billionaire. It also landed her on magazine covers and on stage at prominent business conferences.

It is easy to become jaded and wish for the worst for those who fall prey to their own hubris. And I would probably be the last person anyone in these cases would want on their jury. But at this point in my life I wonder, what if she had just accepted that they had failed in their attempt at greatness and offered disappointing news to her investors, and then tried again? Today she would likely be CEO of Theranos or of something greater. And when she holds her mother’s hand, it would be to walk her little boy around the block, not to go in and out of the courtroom.

And what exactly do I tell my students? All of them are looking for people to inspire them to do great things; my students want to be like these accomplished people. Should I turn my students into cynics because these people cross lines? My students sometimes have trouble settling for being really good, and they are only okay if they are the very best. The same has been true in amateur and professional sports, where numerous athletes have taken steroids to get an advantage.

Elizabeth Holmes fans in line for day one of her trial

The interesting thing to me is how many of these people are extraordinary without crossing the lines. Multiple Hall of Fame quality baseball players are not in the Hall simply because they took steroids. People like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were amazing before they broke the rules. The same is true of Elizabeth Holmes. What makes them willing to risk it all rather than fall short of being transformative?

I assume that ego is part of the answer. But I also have to recognize that many of us, including me, love to believe the unbelievable. And we invest ourselves in those who can make things seem possible. Sometimes it is just hero worship, and sometimes it is our money, but when those heroes fail, we are ready to burn the whole thing down. Perhaps we should recognize that we feed the flame as well.

In the meantime, in the next month or two, Elizabeth Holmes will learn her fate. Twelve good people will set the direction for her life. And this piece that I have written will fade into the dust of memory.

But if I could say one thing to my students, regardless of the trial’s outcome, it would be this: You are enough as you are. Dream big but tell the truth—to yourself and to others.

And if you are going to invest your money in your heroes—ask for audited financial statements.

 

Categories: Blogs, Bottom Line Ethics, Business, Crime

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

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