Michael K. Shaub, June 30th, 2010
It has been a painful week for me personally. Part of it was my own fault. I was trimming my lawn, when I managed to do something I had never done before—thoroughly weed whack my ankle. I am pretty sure that the scar left on my ankle is a gang symbol, though I’m not sure which one. I think it might be the Smurfs.
But the more painful event in my week was inflicted on me by the Texas State Board of Public Accountancy. June is my month to report continuing education and renew my license, and I generally benefit from the conferences and sessions that help me maintain my certification. But every other year CPAs in Texas are required to report a four-hour session from a small group of select courses approved by the Board. You might be surprised to know that what caused me so much pain was an ethics course.
There are a number of reasons why that ought not to be true. One relatively obvious one is that I happen to love the topic and teach it for a living. I care deeply about the ethical reasoning and behavior of CPAs, particularly of my students. I am also invigorated by my students when I am with them in the accounting ethics classroom. I cannot tell you how much I learned from my 138 students this past spring as they related to one another in ethics accountability groups, and put together some stunning and meaningful presentations. These students also each developed a set of principles to guide their professional lives. I was challenged and moved by the growth in students’ perspectives during the course.
Another major reason the Board-approved ethics course should not have been a problem for me is that I have a high tolerance for boredom. I am, after all, a CPA, and have been for almost 27 years. I am also a professor who has sat through innumerable commencement speeches and faculty meetings. I may have to pull the hair on my legs to stay awake, but I can usually manage to get through most sessions that normal people would find intolerable.
I had a couple of factors working against me. I had waited till the last minute and had no choice but to sit through the whole course at one time. In addition, I had decided to go the low cost route in selecting my course, insuring an online delivery method that was as interesting as reading the phone book.
You might think I was bored because I already know all this stuff. But the stuff I know was actually the interesting part of the course. The course also covered, but essentially never tested over, innumerable philosophers’ perspectives, a few of which were actually relevant to decisions we make in the accounting profession. And there were endless pages of minutiae to protect the public from such dangers as two CPAs using the same staff and incorrectly representing that they were a partnership. Wow! There oughta be a law! That will bring down the republic!
But it ought not to be this way. This course is a perfect example of why people look at me with a puzzled expression when I talk about how much I enjoy teaching ethics. The nice ones ask, “Can you teach ethics?” Of course, they mean, “Can you teach it up? Can you help people make better decisions?” Everybody knows that you can teach it down; my profession has plenty of examples.
In fact, perhaps the most painful experience of my week was an e-mail from a former student who related having to make an ethical decision at her CPA firm in a ten-minute window. She chose to tell the truth, and did what was right, and it got her fired. It made my blood boil.
She told me that she remembered what I had said in class about having to make hard decisions. And she was writing to say thanks, to say that she was content and her conscience was clear, when she could easily have been writing to tell me I was wrong, and how could she have ever listened to me?
I’m sure there are better ethics continuing education courses that I can take, and maybe two years from now I will open my pockets wider and hope for the best. But I know the best hope for changing the profession is not in this futile biennial requirement.
It is in that classroom I will return to, where hearts and lives are shaped and changed. I have the chance to fan the flame of moral courage in a remarkable group of students from a variety of backgrounds. The accounting profession may not like what they get sometimes. But as long as I have breath, and as long as I prepare Aggies, people like my student are what I am going to send them.