August, 2020 | 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.

 

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