Bottom Line Ethics - Part 2

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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.

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

I have been following with great interest the baseball cheating scandal for the last several weeks. Growing up playing baseball, deceit was an integral part of the game, and much of it was within the rules. As a shortstop, one of the most satisfying plays to execute was to catch a runner flatfooted and pick him off second base. All it took was a simple signal and appropriate timing (and a gullible baserunner). Catchers framing pitches for umpires, infielders making tags look like they were in time with a sweeping motion, and first basemen coming off the bag slightly to receive a throw just in time to get the runner were, and are, commonplace to the game.

Of course, the trash can banging of the Houston Astros to tip-off batters about pitches coming, based on cameras following pitchers’ tendencies and catchers’ signs, goes far beyond the functional deceit common to most games. The situation came to light when Oakland A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, who had won the 2017 World Series with the Astros, said publicly that he had warned his new team about the Astros stealing signs. So, while Fiers was technically a whistleblower and has received some of the blowback all whistleblowers get, he primarily used the information only for his own team’s benefit.

While the Astros have been fined and lost draft picks, and manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow were suspended for a year by Major League Baseball and subsequently fired by the Astros, nothing has happened to the players involved. Hinch allegedly actually interfered with the cheating by breaking monitors used in the scam on more than one occasion, which were then replaced. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement on the issue did not indicate that Luhnow had personal knowledge of the cheating, but held him responsible for oversight of the baseball portion of the organization, as opposed to the financial part overseen by Astros owner Jim Crane. So the hammer came down on the person who tried to stop it and a person who may not have known about it—but nothing has happened to the players.

A.J. Hinch and Jeff Luhnow
Source: click2houston.com

Hinch and Luhnow are familiar characters to anyone who studies fraud. Many people like Hinch have tried to stop frauds but not had the moral courage to reveal them outside the organization, something even more difficult in a culture like professional baseball. Two WorldCom employees involved in that gargantuan financial fraud signed letters of resignation but never turned them in. Both went to prison. Some people in positions of authority, like Luhnow, plead ignorance and indicate that it was lower-level employees who carried out the fraud unbeknownst to them. In financial fraud investigations, enough information is released or comes out at trial to provide insight as to whether those claims are true. The secretive nature of professional sports leagues means that we will likely never know whether it is true for Luhnow, but because of the sanction by the Commissioner, he is being treated like it is. And that may be totally unfair.

Punishing teams is like punishing corporations—it has almost no effect on those engaged in the behavior being punished. (That is an exaggeration—I don’t expect any trash can banging this year.) It is arguable that the cheating had an effect on the Astros’ success in their championship season. We simply will never know for sure. But what would deter players from doing it again if they believed they would not be detected?

Some have said that the league actually was heavy-handed, and did all that it could to punish the Astros. However, it could have instituted additional sanctions. For example, it could have required the Astros to forfeit any compensatory draft picks that would otherwise have been received for free agents who signed with other teams. A sanction like this for, say, ten years could actually alter a team’s ability to keep its free agents.

When cheating can be assigned to an individual, it is easy to punish. Sammy Sosa, that most creative of baseball cheats, not only allegedly tested positive for steroids, but was suspended in 2003 for corking his bat. I assume that the reason the Astros players were not sanctioned is because of the players’ union’s influence, the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and the universal participation in the scandal by team members. You either punish them all, or you punish none of them. In this case, there really is safety in numbers. A real penalty would have been for the players to lose a year of major league service time toward their salary arbitration and their pension. That would change future behavior. But it would never happen in the current labor environment.

The other option that I think would have been impactful would have been to ban the team from the postseason for a year. To spend an entire season knowing that your performance was meaningless is something no player would ever want to go through again. In other words, no one wants to play for the Orioles or Tigers. It would also have a much more significant impact on the franchise financially than the maximum fine of $5 million.

So we should not be surprised if the players cry crocodile tears about the situation and offer thin apologies this spring. What we have seen clearly is that there are behaviors that Major League Baseball is powerless to stop. And the players do not have the sense of duty to honor the game when success, and the money that flows from it, is all that matters.

Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

Updated 12/4/2019 11:24 AM with scholarship information at end.

There are times along the road of life that we are given to cynicism. In my world, that cynicism can come from following closely the stories of people in the business world, and in the accounting profession, who live on the edge ethically. They deflect criticism and offer a litany of excuses when they wrong others or take their money. They largely avoid punishments they deserve, and they move on to hurt others in similar ways. There are days when I wonder if there is any hope of changing the environment my students will go into in the business world.

And then you meet someone like Maegan Sanders. Raised in a family deeply rooted in its faith, in a close-knit community, the kind of small town that sends its best to Texas A&M. A gentle, effervescent soul who could dominate you intellectually, but refuses to make you feel small. Maegan is the kind of person you design exams around; the goal is not to challenge her, but to see if you can create an exam on which she will not make 100.

She has been a presence in these halls even before she was in these halls, the precious daughter of a colleague who shapes some of the very best of our Accounting students with the information technology skills that put them in high demand on the market. Her mom is one of the most influential members of our faculty, and I have spent the entirety of my 13+ years here officed in the same hallway, watching her children go in and out of her door as they became formative Aggies.

Maegan hit the ground running here, accelerating through Business Honors into our Professional Program in Accounting (PPA), and she was headed out the door next May to work for Ernst & Young in San Antonio, and to begin her new life with her beloved fiancé. Last Sunday her life was cut short in a moment on a too busy holiday highway.

The tragic accident that took Maegan and her brother, Wesley, from us is the type of event that could make us cynical as well. The unexplainable is often the root of doubt and despair. A decade ago we lost one of our very best in the Professional Program in a similar sudden and unexplainable way, and I am affected by that seeming injustice to this day.

But I also see in these tragedies the hope that springs from faith and from community, and from a life well-lived, whether for 22 or 92 years. I received word of the accident barely 48 hours ago, and yet I have seen an outpouring of love and commitment from the Aggie family and from the students in our program that humbles me. Within hours a 24/7 prayer vigil for the family was launched by PPA students that is continuing at this moment. Money for an urgent need was raised through a Venmo outreach—in 20 minutes. A scholarship is being established to remember Maegan and Wesley, and Aggies from all over are asking how they can be a part.

I try with everything in me to teach and to model a life worth living in the business world. And then someone like Maegan Sanders enters my classroom, already living the joint life of technical excellence, even brilliance, and unquestioned integrity. I wonder exactly how God puts together a person like that.

I can give you a clue. In my Accounting Ethics class, my students are required to develop principles to guide their professional lives. Maegan’s first and last principles came from the same source—her mom. “Always listen to your little voice.” That little voice was “built and sculpted by the way I was raised,” Maegan wrote. And the second principle that was her guiding force in the voice of her mother was this: “Just be nice. It’s as simple as that.”

Tonight I will attend the visitation, and tomorrow the funeral, for two precious lives taken too soon. I will wear something green for Wesley, and yellow for Maegan, as the family has requested. And as I sit there, I will listen to my little voice. It is the same little voice that told me to write this.

And then tomorrow, in the challenges that go with directing a program and caring for aging parents, I will try to remember to just be nice. Because, in the end, it’s as simple as that.

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The Accounting department has created a scholarship endowment in memory of Maegan and Wesley Sanders. Income from the endowment will be used to provide an annual scholarship for an outstanding accounting major and to help create a lasting legacy for Maegan and Wesley. If you would like to contribute to this fund, please visit the Texas A&M Foundation page and choose The General Memorial Fund.  Under gift details, check the box in honor of someone special, select “In Memory” of “Maegan and Wesley Sanders” for the “Memorial Scholarship” and notify “The Sanders Family”. For information on where to send checks, please email ppa@tamu.edu. Thank you.

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

On this August day, the University of Nebraska at Omaha flags fly at half-mast for a man whose heart was as beautiful as his mind. David Swanson could have done any number of things with that extraordinary intellect. What he chose to do was to quietly make life better for thousands of Nebraskans by investing himself in a critical role that impacted its university system. It is not the kind of thing that engenders a hero’s respect in most people’s eyes. But then Dave is not most people.

David SwansonI met David when I was a young professor at Nebraska, about the time he married Ronda. He was a bike-riding graduate student who thought on a different plane. As they grew into their marriage and encountered parenthood, our friendship blossomed. Linda and I were hopelessly overwhelmed with three, and then four, children, so we welcomed their curiosity and their practical help.

He loved the Twins. The first two times I typed that, it came out “loves” as if my fingers couldn’t type the past tense. He loved them stupidly, like a child, against all evidence, the way I love the Orioles. I still remember a camping trip our families took together, our boys tossing the baseball back and forth as proxies for us. My last memory of Lincoln before leaving for good is a whiffle ball game at his son’s first birthday party.

He loved the Huskers, too, even through a long period of gradual decline after three national championships. But even in frustrating times, he could always laugh at the irony of decisions that were being made. He had a lightness to his heart that did not, with rare exception, allow the blows of life to drive him to despair.

And so he served as a sort of flotation device for many, including me, a combination of humor and relentless rationality that kept us from sinking too deep. He was not just rational about science and math, but he understood the rational implications of the faith in Christ he so boldly proclaimed for all the years I knew him.

Right now I am emotional and dazed at this tragic and seemingly pointless loss. And then I start thinking of him talking to me in that uniquely nasal tone I could immediately identify if I heard it in a crowded room. He is finishing every other sentence with a rat-a-tat laugh that says, “What did you expect?” It is not a cynical question.

So much of our lives as believers is ironic. What would make Dave and me friends? How would we both marry above ourselves to women who, though born a decade apart, cannot seem to get enough of being together? Dave and I would have been stuck with each other even if we had not found so much to like in each other. But I cannot remember spending five minutes in David Swanson’s presence without laughing, even in the bad times.

You don’t lower a flag to half-mast for Ph.D. types who are computer gurus, but on the day I write this, they are lowering it for Dave. He would be laughing and saying, “Are you kidding me?” No, dear friend, we’re not. You have lived a life worthy of that. You have made a meaningful impact on so many, one life at a time, not just one professional accomplishment at a time. What you could do with your mind gave you access to our hearts. And your unselfish devotion to each of us, to your family, and to your Lord is the reason we feel not just regret, but pain, in losing you.

I know you are hearing even better commendations now. But I wanted you to hear it from me, too. Well done, beloved friend.

Related: Two funds set up to support Swanson family

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

My wife and I were walking up from the beach together, past a house that had a pickup truck whose bass speakers were sufficient to physically rattle the windows of our house across the street. I looked over at the truck, and an older man (and, by that, I mean younger than me) shouted at his daughter to turn the music down out of consideration for us. Her immediate reply to him before complying was, “They were young once!”

Indeed they were. Once they held hands and talked of a future together. He whispered in her ear and she giggled and pulled away, only to have him gently grab her arm and pull her back to him. He looked in those clear blue eyes and felt his heart fly away to places he never knew existed. He wooed her as a college student and married her right after. They spent restless nights sleeping in an unairconditioned house with a box fan whirring in a window and a baby in the next room. They spent a dozen years living in more than that many homes, stopping and starting a career in fits and spurts until a Ph.D. program spat out a professor equipped with an inquisitive mind, two more kids and that same blue-eyed girl. Those three kids grew to five, and the seasons flew by, hardly noticed. Life for them was a continuum, pulsing from one stage to another until all those kids were gone and the grandkids had long since begun arriving.

Only then did it begin to occur to them that they might be growing old. That they—that he—might be on the backside of his usefulness. He noticed that more of his questions were “why” and fewer of them were “how.” It was not that he just didn’t remember as much; he didn’t understand as much. Because as you get older, while still in the continuing desperate pursuit of those things you never comprehended, you realize that you are quickly being caught from behind by those things that you never knew to ask about, as well as those things you no longer understand. Those deep consternations reflect themselves not just in your specific discipline or expertise, but in music and art and culture and religion. They are accelerated by changes in technology, but they are not a result of it. All generations have faced this inevitable passage in their own ways.

I sit on the cusp of freedom and despair. My life today is the opportunity to finish strong, to fulfill many of my hopes and to see so many good things happen in the lives of those I love. It is the chance to pass the baton on to the next generation, which has already begun accelerating in the exchange lane. In fact, they are quite quickly matching my speed, which is necessary for a successful handoff.

But it is also a recognition that my contribution, my leg of the race, is reaching its end. I am still running hard, and I have to in order to keep up with them. But not for long.

There is a reason I am not running the anchor leg, and that is because I am not the fastest runner. But I have done my best on my leg. I am free to enjoy, in the not too distant future, the rest of the race from the infield. The despair comes in knowing that soon, all that will be left for me to do is cheer.

My Dad turns 99 this month. In his room hangs the picture of a confident 26-year-old, with his civilian arms wrapped around my Mom’s waist after having survived both the worst of the Pacific War and two years apart from her. The whole world lies before them—like us, a return to school, five kids, and a career of the mind. They were young once. Today, he wonders where she has gone.

The pickup truck just pulled back into the neighbor’s driveway, the speakers booming life, the future, possibilities. The guy on the porch across the street from that pickup truck watches, reflecting on what it is to have meaning and confidence without youth. He knows deep in his heart that he is one of the lucky ones, still stimulated by a meaningful job that includes the opportunity to teach, and to be influenced by, a remarkable group of college students who continue to make him feel young. And to still be carried away by those gorgeous blue eyes not just to unseen places, but to memories built together, full of whimsy and wonder.

They were young once. And, to be honest, perhaps more often than you think, they still are. The immeasurable gift of a lifetime together is hard to top, even by the highest highs of youth.

But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to go back and try.

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

“To be ethical in a profession, a person needs to be both competent and honest. It is unethical to act dishonestly, and that is particularly evident when it is for personal gain. But it is also unethical to project competence, or to pretend to know something professionally, when in fact you do not.”

** From the Editor: “How to Lose a Profession” is a sobering essay on the value of integrity and having moral courage when integrity is lacking. In the interest of integrity and morality, read the full article before you react. **


In recent days, the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that they were fining Big 4 accounting firm KPMG $50 million for systematically stealing the PCAOB inspection lists for the years 2015-2017 to know in advance which of their audits would be inspected. All but one of the partners or managing directors involved have entered guilty pleas or been convicted, so the announcement was no surprise. In fact, the $50 million penalty seems relatively modest in light of the charges.

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Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

When I was growing up, I idolized ballplayers who scrapped and worked hard to do what the team needed. They were always “whatever it takes” guys; lay down a bunt, hit behind the runner, hit the ball in the air with a runner on third and less than two outs. They were not looking for the glory, but they were the glue that held a baseball team together.

But “whatever it takes” has taken on a new meaning in adulthood, most recently demonstrated by the recent college admissions scandal. Parents focused on maximizing opportunities for their children were willing to pay to game the admissions system in two ways—direct payments to coaches for their children to be classified as athletic admits when they were not competitive athletic recruits, and paying to cheat on standardized tests. The lack of controls at well-regarded schools, even Ivy League schools, meant that the “whatever” in “whatever it takes” was simply money funneled through Rick Singer. And the lack of control over testing centers by the College Board and the ACT, when their only product is an exam that is supposed to be a reliable measure, meant that the willingness to travel to take the exam at those testing centers was part of “whatever it takes.”

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Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

As the ball floated helplessly through the air and nestled in the arms of LSU safety Grant Delpit, I watched with dismay as another chance for an Aggie football breakthrough disappeared like a puff of breath on a cold night. Delpit slid to a stop, and I turned to the aisle, unwilling to watch the inevitable kneel down that followed the Gatorade bath enjoyed by LSU coach Ed Orgeron. I’m sure the young defensive back was already rehearsing in his mind the answers he would give to a swarm of reporters about how it felt to seal a game that sent his team to a New Year’s Six Bowl.

But I was stopped in my tracks by the wholly unanticipated announcement: “The previous play is under further review.” An inadvertent touch of knee to ground nullified the interception, and an improbable 4th-and-18 conversion, followed by a sideline catch and a “just in time” spike, left the Aggies hanging by the slenderest of threads, with one play, and one second, to go. No one could have imagined the bedlam that was to follow over the next hour and a half.

 This is our 13th year as Aggie season ticket holders, and nothing could have prepared us for what we were about to experience. It reminded me of watching the end of the first Rocky movie, when both fighters were punching with everything they had and yet barely standing up. The overtimes that followed Quartney Davis’s touchdown on the last play of regulation consisted largely of a series of momentum swings, devolving into two offenses running roughshod over defenses depleted by the weight of nearly 200 plays. For the first time in 100 years, it looked like the 12th Man might actually be needed on the field.

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Categories: Bottom Line Ethics

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