Should Jack Abramoff Be Speaking at UT?

 

The prospect of bringing a disgraced lobbyist to the Forty Acres caused officials to do some soul-searching. Why they decided to host him for students, speaker’s fee and all.

What can a notorious convicted lobbyist teach university students about ethics? No, that’s not the opening of a joke. It’s the premise of why Jack Abramoff will be speaking on campus next week.

On May 2, Jack Abramoff, the former lobbyist who was indicted in 2005 on charges of fraud, conspiracy and tax evasion, will be on campus for the free event, “You Don’t Know Jack: A Conversation with Jack Abramoff,” where he will take part in a discussion about the importance of ethics.

“Jack Abramoff has made some mistakes that I hope our students will never make. If they can learn from him how he made those [mistakes], they can keep their ethical antennae up and hopefully avoid some of the errors that he made,” says Robert Prentice, chair of the Department of Business, Government and Society and a moderator for the event.

Since leaving prison in December 2010, Abramoff is sharing his story through appearances around the country, on television and in his recent book, “Capitol Punishment,” released last November. During his visit to Austin, Abramoff will also be filmed for a segment of the McCombs video series project “Ethics Unwrapped” (funded by a grant from the Deloitte Foundation), which aims to encourage dialogue in classrooms around the topic of ethical decision making.

Abramoff on the 40 Acres

“This is an opportunity for students to hear about the failures of government oversight, but also hubris and arrogance,” says DeAunderia N. Bowens, Student Events Center (SEC) advisor. (The SEC Distinguished Speaker Series is one of the groups partnering with McCombs to bring Abramoff to campus.) Bowens says that as future leaders, UT students have much to learn from hearing about Abramoff’s missteps.

But that doesn’t mean everyone was excited about bringing Abramoff to campus.

“My first thought was, ‘Do we be want to be paying people to come and talk about moral failure?’” says Howard T. Prince, director for the Center for Ethical Leadership at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. Prince says that over time, however, his opinion changed as it became clear that others involved in bringing Abramoff to campus had wrestled with the same concerns. “I think all of us did some soul-searching over the issue,” Prince says.

Although Abramoff will be paid a fee for his appearance, organizers make clear that the term “honorarium” shouldn’t apply in this instance. “There’s a sense that if he comes here and appears to be honest with people and is forthcoming and we have productive conversations, then that’s something that I can respect. But nobody’s honoring him for his presence here,” says Susan “George” Schorn, senior program coordinator in the School of Undergraduate Studies, who helped craft questions for the moderators.

A third party will manage Abramoff’s earnings from the event, with a portion going to the restitution he must pay for his crimes and a portion going to Abramoff’s family, an arrangement that relieves some detractors.

“The last thing I want to do is help a scoundrel make money off moral failure,” Prince says.

Along with concerns about payment, many agree that another key consideration is whether speakers like Abramoff are sufficiently contrite about what they have done. “You have to vet your speakers,” says management professor Janet Dukerich. “Is this someone who is sufficiently sorry [for what they did]? If not, you don’t bring them in.”

Lessons From Prison

Abramoff isn’t the first ex-con to appear before a university audience. Schools have been facilitating interactions between students and criminals for years, according to Prentice and Linda Treviño, professor of organizational behavior and ethics at Penn State’s Smeal College of Business.

Back in 1993 at the College of Charleston, former professor Gary Tidwell taught a course entitled “Ethics and White-Collar Crime” that took students to a number of prisons across the southeast United States. While on sabbatical from Penn State, Treviño accompanied Tidwell’s students as they visited minimum and maximum security prisons, an experience that influenced her approach to teaching ethics. Now she brings white-collar criminals to speak to her undergraduate and MBA business ethics classes and says that listening to speakers who are clearly remorseful about their crimes causes students to stop and think. “They learned a few really important things. I can’t overstate how impactful it is,” Treviño says.

The speakers share the harsh reality of their time behind bars, the difficulty of finding work post-prison and the lingering impact their crimes can have on their families. The damage done to children and spouses can be especially hard for ex-cons to bear. “If you ask them about that, you’ll often get tears,” Treviño says.

The McCombs School has hosted speakers with criminal records for years. Harvin Moore, who earned an undergraduate law degree from the university and later served time for bank fraud, uses his past as the basis for talks around the country. (Moore will appear again at the next Distinguished Speaker Lyceum in the fall.) Professors who have had Moore in their classrooms say he is one of the most popular speakers.

“He gives [students] insight into what happens when you compromise your principles,” says Urton Anderson, professor of accounting. Dukerich, who team-taught with Anderson, says Moore tells the students how “easy it is to make a mistake and how horrible the consequences are for everyone around them.”

“You can hear a pin drop in a classroom of 300 to 500 students when he’s speaking,” says Stephen Limberg, director of the Master in Professional Accounting program, which sponsors the Lyceum.

What Students Have Learned

In his talk, Moore describes his path from lawyer to successful real estate developer to prisoner number 53177-079 at the Federal Prison Camp on Fort Bliss in El Paso. Moore tells his story with plenty of drama and emotion, but without denial or blame for anyone but himself. “What I came back with from El Paso was an understanding of what I had done and why I had done it,” he says. By describing his fall, Moore conveys to students how easy it is to justify one’s own poor choices in the face of real-world challenges.

“When we’re in that position of losing everything that we worked on, we’re always going to look at something that was wrong, but then we’ll start analyzing it a whole lot more to make it seem right,” says senior MPA student Vince Taylor. Taylor says he came away from Moore’s talk at the MPA Lyceum last fall with the knowledge that if a decision seems wrong, you shouldn’t have to convince yourself otherwise. “You just need to break it down into one simple question: Should I be doing this or is this the right thing? If that immediate answer is ‘no,’ then you shouldn’t go any further” by trying to rationalize your decision, Taylor says.

Another recent speaker sharing his message of repentance is Garrett Bauer, who spoke via Skype to the Texas Undergraduate Investment Team. Bauer, who is awaiting sentencing following an arrest for his role in an insider trading conspiracy, told his story and took questions from the audience.

Anuj Khandelwal, Business Honors senior and investment manager with the Investment Team, heard Bauer’s presentation and says that while professors tell students why they should behave ethically, students don’t often get those messages directly from speakers who have themselves committed ethical lapses. When those messages come from people like Bauer—individuals with whom students can identify—they can be especially effective.

“It’s easy for someone to tell you that you shouldn’t do it. We know we shouldn’t do it,” Khandelwal says. “But what makes it more interesting when someone’s done it is how he got into it.” When students hear from someone who didn’t think they’d ever commit a crime but still managed to cross the line into illegal activity, “that’s when I feel like it’s more impactful,” Khandelwal says.

“Do the Right Thing”

LBJ’s Prince says that on a college campus, where students are largely exposed to the good side of human nature, it’s important to acknowledge the bad side as well. Others agree. “Because we pay more attention to the negative, we retain more” from hearing about such experiences, says Penn State’s Treviño.

Students should get the chance to be active participants when Abramoff appears at UT. “I hope that the students push him,” Schorn says. “I hope that there is an opportunity for students to really kind of get their money’s worth out of him and see what can we learn from this as individuals, about our own choices going forward, and what do we take from this as a society.”

What students learn could help them avoid the pitfalls that claimed Abramoff. “Most of our kids are good kids, and they want to do the right thing,” Prentice says. “And they don’t want to mess up like Jack Abramoff did.”

This story was first published on McCombs Today.

 

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