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Play reflects life, becomes catalyst for business ethics discussion

February 24, 2004

Before the demise of blockbuster companies like Enron, WorldCom and Tyco, a CPA with a yearning to write sat down and wrote a play that captured much of what he didn't like in the world of accounting. The result, Professional Skepticism, seems almost prophetic today: it is an unsparing, dark comedy about the accounting profession and the ethical questions that arise when fraud is uncovered by an accountant.

The playwright, Jim Rasheed, was at Bentley on February 23, joining four Bentley professors to talk about ethics and the arts, a panel discussion sponsored by the Bentley College Undergraduate Honors Program in the Wilder Pavilion.

"Art plays a role in our moral development - it always has and always will, for better or for worse," said Linda McJanet, professor of English and director of the Honors Program, as she introduced the panel.

Professional Skepticism takes place in a small conference room where three staff members are finishing an audit when one accountant discovers evidence of fraud. The ethical dilemma - and how each character responds to it - is the soul of the play and the catalyst for the panel discussion.(Jim Rasheed, pictured at left.)

 

"It's about competition," said Rasheed, a graduate of Clemson University who worked for Ernst & Young before going back to school, eventually earning a master of fine arts degree from Brandeis University. "When you're in competition, do you let down your guard? What will you do to get ahead? What are your ethics?"

According to Professor of Accountancy Bill Read, in the wake of the demise of big companies like Enron, and because of the integral role that the accounting firm of Arthur Andersen had in bringing corporate entities down, the accounting profession and an accounting curriculum has to be about "doing the right thing."

"As accountants, whether we're a member of an organization or a CPA, we're a member of a profession," said Read. ". . .We have been called to a new order."

Professor of Management and Sociology Tony Buono said the play's unfolding drama reflected a number of failures in leadership. He stressed that organizational leaders play a critical role in the ethical tone of an organization.

"But leadership doesn't occur in a vacuum. . . Cultural tone and shared values are crucial to determining behavior in an organization," Buono said.

Professor of Philosophy Robert Frederick pointed out that the three characters in the play, responding to a rules-based system of ethics and auditing, find ways to ignore, manipulate or massage those rules.

"It may seem like a rule is a rule is a rule," said Frederick, "but the three characters show that rules are subject to interpretation, broadly or narrowly, accepted or ignored, and how we understand and interpret the rules has everything to do with how successful we are as auditors and in every day life."

Frederick said a principles-based system that includes traits like honesty, trustworthiness and virtue of justice, offers a better hope for achieving ethics in business.

Pointing to the corporate scandals of the 1990s and 2000s, Professor of Finance Len Rosenthal discussed the so-called "gatekeepers" of good business conduct who clearly failed to prevent wrongdoing.

For example, Rosenthal said the Securities and Exchange Commission fell down on the job because it was an overworked bureaucracy; the U.S. Stock Exchange and NASDAQ were like the "fox in the chicken coop" and not a good example of self-regulation; the media, instead of acting as a watchdog, just got "caught up in the euphoria" of the times; and too many of those running the various funds were "in it for the ride and hoping to make as much money as possible for themselves and their clients."

But more than any one person or any group, Rosenthal pointed a finger at the corporate boards of directors, who he said "failed miserably."

"There's much more to be done for corporate governance in order to be responsible to the rights of shareholders," said Rosenthal. "People have a short memory of scandals; there will be more in the decades to come."

BENTLEY UNIVERSITY is one of the nation’s leading business schools, dedicated to preparing a new kind of business leader – one with the deep technical skills, broad global perspective, and high ethical standards required to make a difference in an ever-changing world. Our rich, diverse arts and sciences program, combined with an advanced business curriculum, prepares informed professionals who make an impact in their chosen fields. Located on a classic New England campus minutes from Boston, Bentley is a dynamic community of leaders, scholars and creative thinkers. The Graduate School emphasizes the impact of technology on business practice, in offerings that include MBA and Master of Science programs, PhD programs in accountancy and in business, and customized executive education programs. The university enrolls approximately 4,100 full-time undergraduate, 140 adult part-time undergraduate, 1,430 graduate, and 43 doctoral students. Bentley is accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges; AACSB International – The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business; and the European Quality Improvement System, which benchmarks quality in management and business education. For more information, please visit www.bentley.edu

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