April, 2012 | Bottom Line Ethics

As I begin the final week of Accounting Ethics, I am overwhelmed by the ground we have covered and the issues we have encountered over the past five weeks. Of course, many of them have been centered in Arkansas: the firing of head football coach Bobby Petrino for lying about a relationship with someone hired in the athletic department, the questionable hiring of his replacement who had only been head coach at Weber State for 4½ months, and the burgeoning Wal-Mart Foreign Corrupt Practices Act scandal. We have heard first-hand accounts of events at Adelphia and Enron, and we have been face-to-face for a conversation with an insider trader waiting to be sentenced.

By the middle of next week I will have read something close to 2000 papers and exams written by my students. I can only imagine that they are, as I am, sometimes overwhelmed by the constant drumbeat of bad behavior and excuses. It is only too easy to become cynical as we constantly focus on the bad guys and try to examine the motives for unjustifiable actions.

But there is something going on in some of my students that gives me a sense that they understand the importance of struggling with these issues now, rather than waiting until they are in the midst of an ethically problematic situation in a few years. I have seen leaders emerging in the classroom in ways that are not as evident to me when I teach Auditing, because they must wrestle with challenging one another about what is true and right, while still respecting one another enough to listen to opposing viewpoints. As usual, their freely chosen outside reading is varied, but I have had a number of students take on very challenging thinkers. Many of these students would not embrace the viewpoints they are reading, but they want to understand why others have come to different conclusions.

At the end of the week the students will submit to me ten or fewer principles to guide their professional lives, and their reasoning for anchoring on those principles. Some will arrive at them through their reading, some despite it. Some of those principles will be influenced by other members of their ethics accountability groups; many will come from their historic commitments to faith, to family, and to habits that already exist in their hearts.

For six weeks I am the conductor, not so much of an orchestra as of a train. I set the thing in motion in a direction, and a number hop on for the whole ride. As I look in my mirror, I can see others bailing out of a boxcar and rolling down the embankment along the tracks. I even get the occasional call from someone who was left behind in the station.

But there are some who will discover at the end of the week that this train is just a short hop run to the central station, and they will have to make a choice about which train they will hop on next. What is exciting is that I can already see some of them pulling the money out of their pocket to buy that next ticket, because their ultimate destinations matter to them.

They are well aware that they could be headed for honor or for shame, and that the choice is largely theirs. One of the most frequently repeated words I have seen used in their weekly reading summaries is “courage.” It is a virtue that they will need in great measure if they are going to swim against a societal current that does not always value ethical leaders.

But as I turn the train around and head back, I can tell you that I am hopeful. I have had long conversations with students in this class that give me great hope that they will choose well. If they do, it will not be because of me. But they have learned something of valuing the company they keep and the habits they build.

What lies ahead of them, on tracks that will never be seen by me, is the great adventure of a life lived well. It includes investment in people, valuing others and not simply personal gain. It includes the ability to say no to bad priorities and unethical people. It will also involve saying yes to things that matter and things that cost them something.

Of course, some of them will sit in the station, look at the choices, call a cab, and go home. I am not teaching this course for everybody, but for somebody. I may never know who that somebody is. But I have no need to, as long as that somebody catches the right train.

That is why I teach ethics.

Categories: Texas A&M

I have written on multiple occasions about the tendency in our society for competence to trump integrity. Highly skilled individuals who accomplish the goals of those who hire them are regularly given free rein to succeed by whatever means necessary. People with integrity who fall short of the goals, and who refuse to compromise their integrity to get where they need to be, are often cut loose.

Since Bobby Petrino’s much publicized motorcycle crash on April Fool’s Day with a 25-year-old football program employee on the back, there has been significant discussion about how the story would end. Athletic director Jeff Long announced yesterday that Petrino was being terminated immediately “with cause,” meaning that there would be no buyout of his contract. Long determined that Petrino had violated the morals clause of that contract, something pretty much everybody else had figured out by the end of the day on April 1.

But the morals clause didn’t require that he be fired; it only allowed it. And in the current environment of intercollegiate athletics, it is pretty easy to be cynical about what administrators will do in these types of situations. A CBS Sports report indicated that the value of the football program to the university has increased 59 percent since Petrino became the coach, and his last two teams finished in the top 10. With Arkansas playing in the SEC West along with the two teams who played in last year’s national championship game, this is no small accomplishment. Athletic directors are hard pressed to move against coaches who have the support of the university’s board and of boosters.

But when Long looks in the mirror, he knows that, as the incoming athletic director, he was the one who hired someone with a reputation for lying and dissembling. He also stole him away from the Atlanta Falcons in the middle of the NFL season; the coach left notes in his players’ lockers letting them know he was leaving rather than meeting with them as a group. From the moment he was hired, Long knew that this was a high risk, high reward hire. He was hiring a ticking time bomb. Some boards of directors hire CEOs using the same reasoning. And Long was smart enough to structure the contract to make it very difficult for Petrino to leave on a whim, and easy to fire him if he went off the deep end. Long thought that he had largely controlled his risk.

Petrino, using the terms of my profession, is a walking control weakness. He is the type of person who can override all the systems you have in place to insure compliance with the rules. And he did just that. He not only had an affair with a former volleyball player who worked for the university’s foundation, he allegedly gave her a $20,000 gift, and then he hired her over 158 other candidates for a position within the football program. The collateral damage is not just to Petrino’s family. He leaves behind him evidence of sexual harassment and violations of explicit university policy, if not state and federal law. It is hard to fathom the amount of time that university attorneys will spend cleaning up the Bobby Petrino mess. And that is assuming that there is not another shoe to drop. As an auditor, I would be reasonably skeptical about rules being followed in other areas of the football program.

Adam Smith once said, “To attain to this envied situation, the candidates for fortune too frequently abandon the paths of virtue; for unhappily, the road which leads to the one and that which leads to the other, lie sometimes in very opposite directions.” I am pretty confident that the road that Bobby Petrino was traveling down with a blonde on the back of his motorcycle was not the road to virtue. And from all appearances, despite his driving record, Razorback boosters were hopping on the back and hitching a ride. Kudos to Jeff Long for catching a cab back to town to begin the process of rebuilding Razorback integrity.

Categories: Athletics

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