Ethics – Fundamental Attribution Error

When we read the stories about Enron, HealthSouth, and other accounting scandals, what is usually mentioned is the malicious intent of the executives to perpetrate a fraud. This is because “bad people do bad things,” right? Although the stories are instructive of how things can go wrong in an organization and how it can affect those involved, it is easy to forget about how we are all susceptible to the same temptations.

The fundamental attribution error is the human tendency to attribute the cause of these wrongdoings to the character of the individual who committed them. It’s called an error because, overwhelmingly, human behavior is determined more by environment than inherent personality traits. This error of perception works both ways, too: when something goes right, we tend to think that it was due to our virtues and/or skills rather than external factors (sheer luck, a good supporting staff who helped along the way, or a stock-market generally on an uptick). This, combined with the fact that people tend to rate their ethical inclinations higher than they actually are, is a troublesome sign for working professionals in just about every field. A fraud can begin with an innocent mistake, and continue because the perpetrator needs to cover it up. Of course, this is because they do not believe themselves to be a bad person.

However, being aware of the problem is an important step toward preventing future unethical behavior. That accountants spend a great deal of time thinking about internal control perhaps serves as a tribute to this way of thinking. We restrict access and separate duties of employees in a manner that reflects the notion that environmental factors are strong determinants of behavior. Surely these companies do not go around hiring bad people all the time so that they feel the need to exercise constant vigilance. These employees go along with it without feeling as though they are distrusted because the company thinks they are bad people and thus likely to steal from them. It is an unfortunate fact of life, but you can put an otherwise good person in a position where they can commit fraud without oversight or control, and you will run the risk of a fraud occurring.Thumbnail_FundamentalAttributionError_01_21_14_Version_01-1024x576

For more about the psychological aspects of ethics, see Ethical Decision Making: More Needed Than Good Intentions and the Ethics Unwrapped Series, both by Robert Prentice, McCombs School of Business.

International Potluck

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Recently, the MPA International Connection hosted a potluck where international students shared foods from their respective home countries. Fortunately, they invited all of us to come and try them out. In good spirit, the domestic students brought some of their own food to share with the international students. Career Consultant Dawn Shaw was there, too, helping promote unity among the varied group of students in the MPA program.

About 25 students brought food from China, Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Mexico, Hawaii, and elsewhere. My only regret is that I didn’t save more room for the Korean BBQ. A bigger sampling might have given me enough ammo to write about another stop on my “BBQ trail” even though it’s pretty different from Texas BBQ.  There was so much food that I didn’t get to eat a substantial amount of any one dish, but I do not regret1610014_294678857356625_2368457516241372259_ntaking the opportunity to try out each one. My contribution, being a southerner, wassouthern-style sweet tea. I made a regular sweet tea version and another one infused with fruit.

Altogether, it was a great way to branch out and try something new that you would not otherwise be exposed to. I have always enjoyed eating foreign foods, but there’s nothing like home-cooking. That is a truism that transcends national and cultural boundaries. It also provided a venue to better get to know some fellow students who we may not have known at all otherwise.

That there is enough interest in an event like this is a testament to the diversity of the Texas MPA class, which is a quality important to me. I have enjoyed my travels outside the US and look forward to future travels, but experiencing fellowship in this context with others who are outside their home countries is the next best thing.

 

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Bill Powers and the University of Texas

Large_university-of-texas_seal_rgb(199-91-18)Despite having arrived in Texas only one year ago, I have been paying attention to the controversy surrounding the university’s President, Bill Powers, for some time. It has made national news and recently culminated in his announcement of resignation in 2015. The issue has many facets, not least of which is what the fundamental purpose of the university should be. The University of Texas is a world-class research institution and the flagship university of the state of Texas, but some argue that increasing tuition costs are cheating students out of a low-cost education.

Sure, if we could have it both ways we would provide every student with a top education for pennies. The fact is that tuition costs are soaring everywhere, not just UT, and declining state funding is part of the cause for the increase. Another reason commonly cited, again not just at UT, is the increasing administrative burden on university budgets. That said, the idea that college education should be cheaper to make it more accessible to students sounds like a positive notion on its face, but the side-effects could result in consequences antithetical to the stated goals of its proponents.

The Board of Regents has accused UT of wasting too much money on “ivory tower research” that does not result in much benefit to the public or students. The solution? Force professors to teach more classes and do less research so that fewer professors would be required to be on the payroll. Some unfortunate side-effects of that policy would be that the best professors would leave for other universities that do allow for research opportunities, leaving students with fewer professors that have extensive knowledge of current research in their fields. This is not to say that professors who do not engage in research are inferior, but an important part of a college education, particularly in technical fields, is learning about the forefront of progress. Another side effect would be found in rankings, which are dependent in part on the volume and quality of research. UT has numerous highly-ranked programs that would suffer in several ways. This would also result in employers of UT graduates that frequently recruit here because of the prestige of the academic programs becoming less inclined to do so.

Additionally, many of those students who come from out of state (or out of country, for that matter) would cease to come to Texas if not for the prestige and opportunity offered here. These are the students who pay the most in tuition, and whose absence would be well-noticed on UT’s “bottom line.” The brain-gain that Texas enjoys from these students coming from all over the world ripples through the state’s economy as they graduate and become employed in high-tech industries, which are attracted to the state because of its well-educated labor pool.

Further, what about the Texas residents seeking a world-class education? If UT’s education were cheapened, would they remain in-state at a public university? Not likely – top performers will seek their next best opportunity, and if that involves going to another state and paying top tuition rates there, they will do so.

If Texas is in need of more accessible college education for its citizens, why provide it at the expense of another group of its citizens and the economy at-large? Would it not be easier to convert, say, Austin Community College into a 4-year university? Is UT the only university in the state that is capable of providing what these reformers seek? They could also more effectively achieve their goal by attacking the administrative cost of the university, rather than sacrificing academic excellence in order to lower tuition. Of course, this would not necessarily make education at UT more accessible, but definitely less burdensome since colleges typically do not compete on tuition rates due to the fact that many students take on loans.

The bottom line is that UT has spent decades growing through investment to become one of the top universities in the country. That legacy should not be discarded so quickly. I agree with the Regents that we should do what we can to reduce tuition, but they should be more prudent in their actions and make sure that they do not sabotage their own goals by ignoring side effects that could potentially subvert those goals.

New to Austin and Ready to Go

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Hello to the UT MPA blogosphere! My name is Olivia and I am currently gearing up to start my tMPA experience in about a week.  First…some information about my background. My undergraduate degree is in Fine Arts, so my path to the UT MPA is a bit atypical. Though I was strong in math in high school and started off in Engineering as a college freshman, I quickly discovered the dark rooms on UPenn’s campus and fell hard for photography. When I graduated with my bachelors, I headed out to San Francisco on a whim and soon found myself at a 9-5 desk job that included a sprinkling of Accounts Payable. Yearning for more, I signed up for an evening Financial Accounting class. That class quickly spiraled into more coursework that inspired me to  research graduate programs.

Two years and four months after that first Financial Accounting class, I am thrilled to be writing on this blog, which was akin to a bible for me throughout my application process. I moved to Austin just under a month ago, and so far I am loving it. Truthfully, a lot of my time has gone to setting up my apartment, brushing up my resume, and most significantly, hunkering down and making my way through a 243 page learning resource that the MPA office mailed out to those of us enrolled in Financial Accounting this summer called “Solid Footing.” I just finished it and must admit, I feel like a master of debits and credits. Hard work aside, I have had some time to explore the city. Some of my favorite experiences have been: meditating in The Color Inside, eating at Kin and Comfort (unique and delicious Thai/Southern fusion), lingering on Rainey Street (especially on a weekend afternoon), exploring The Ransom Center (their WWI exhibit is incredible), seeing Obvious Child at Violet Crown (the theater has a modern design, reserved seating, and tasty food), relaxing on Spider House’s patio, and tubing on the Guadalupe River. High on my to-do list are the Umlaf Museum and Sculpture Garden, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Baylor Street Art Wall, and ziplining on Lake Travis at night. Between all of the festivals, museums and galleries, restaurants, parks, and historical landmarks, I don’t think I will run out of things to do in Austin anytime soon.

Though I could easily occupy my time with non-academic, non-career pursuits, there is work to be done! I came to Austin for UT’s MPA program of course, and things will kick off for me this summer with ACC 381 – Financial Accounting with Brian Lendecky and ACC 380K.11 – Introduction to Taxation with Terri Holbrook. This is a pretty typical summer schedule for those entering the tMPA, unless you come to UT with academic waivers. After 5 weeks of those courses, we have a week of orientation. The orientation schedule was recently published and it is a jam-packed week including a faculty lunch, an Academic Advising presentation, a career panel, an etiquette dinner and finally, a two and a half hour career fair. Five days later, fall classes officially start. There really won’t be a break for most MPAs as BA 285T – Financial Management with Ramesh Rao starts during orientation week, before the start of most Fall classes.

I’m ready. Are you?

Goodbye for now to the 40 acres

dancing houseSitting down to write a “goodbye” blog  is actually a really difficult task to do. The most obvious reason is that  this post is to celebrate a degree in accounting, which limits how entertaining it can be.  But more importantly, it is incredibly difficult to say goodbye to this experience in my life. I have never been so challenged personally, professionally, and academically, and there have definitely been a lot of moments I questioned if all of this was even worth it. I have faced decisions that would shape the person and professional I want to become on an almost daily basis. I failed a number of times, but in the end I am emerging with a graduate degree in hand and a dream in mind.

As everyone starts changing their focus from school to graduation and celebrating the moment, its important to take a step back and take note of what we all are celebrating.

We are not celebrating a degree in accounting. We are here to celebrate our success over an obstacle we have collectively, and triumphantly, overcome. An obstacle we initially undertook in order to better our present and future selves and to become closer to the people we want to become, to become our true selves.

There’s a reason that when you stand on the main mall of this campus, and look at the tower, you see the words “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”. This is one successful step in the journey to become our true selves that unites all of us MPA graduates.

A lot of people may be sniggering at the connection of an accounting degree and “truth”. One of my MBA professors always introduced me as part of the professional field that is smart enough to make 2+2=5.

Like any great journey, there are going to be obstacles along the way. Sometimes we fail to find the truth. Sometimes it find us, and it’s too much for us to face. Sometimes we fail to tell the truth. But, in the end, we win by learning from our failures continuing on our journey to become our future ideal selves.

Looking to the world of classic literature, all of the great stories about quests have only a page dedicated to the outcome of the journey. The beauty of the story is the process, the struggle, the challenge, the small triumphs and defeats we face on the way. And, whether we have recognized it or not, we are extremely lucky as Texas MPAs in that the skills we have learned and the experiences we have obtained in this program will help us on our respective journeys. I want to clarify that these lessons don’t exclusively apply the quest for truth in accounting, but the quest for truth in all aspects of our lives. There’s a lot about us that does not revolve around practicing accounting, but the skills we learn as accountants can definitely help us in other areas of our life.

Lesson number 1: Work Hard.
MPAs are a very intriguing breed, because when we talk to each other, we continually talk about how little we care about grades or how little studying we put into a test. However, as I’m sure faculty and parents can attest to, we are probably some the most achievement-oriented, high-strung, hard-working students on this campus.

We have worked hard because our professors have expected the best from us. We have spent hours of preparation for each of our classes in order to not sound like an idiot when we are inevitably cold-called. We practically live in McCombs when it’s midterm or final season. Yet, despite all that work, the average raw score is frequently a barely passing grade. Having to work so hard to simply pass a test is hard on one’s self confidence, but it also teaches us a very valuable lesson: you can always learn more. We have to keep working in order to become experts in accounting, and one class in no way makes us an expert in the material. Just a lot more knowledgeable that everyone else who hasn’t taken the class.

To sum up lesson number one, to quote Vince Lombardi, “The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.” We have worked hard to be here and have overcome a lot of really dry accounting-based readings and received many less than perfect grades to be sitting here today.

Lesson Number 2: Play hard.
Well, I think this was more of an outside of the classroom kind of lesson. (even though some of did party hard in Professor Atiase’s cost accounting class) As accountants, we are all about balance. Our debits always equal our credits. We love our balance sheets. We work hard, so we play hard. It’s really not our fault for a number of reasons. Life is not all about accounting, and it’s important to make the time for the things we love to do and people we enjoy spending time with. No one looks back at this time in their life and wishes they spent more time in Reliant.

Lesson Number 3: The devil’s in the details.
How many times have we heard this throughout our accounting classes? I’m pretty sure Deitrick didn’t last a lecture without saying it at least once. I’ve lost countless points on tests and assignments due to overlooking details, thinking it was so silly they didn’t just give me credit since I understood the concept. However, I can concede, very begrudgingly, that they were right and I was wrong. I think the most important thing I have learned is the importance of accounting for details in this life. The value and meaning of our lives is in the details, in the moments. The moments where we failed. The moments where we succeeded. The moments in which we were sure. The moments in which we doubted. The moments we were outside of our comfort zone. The moment we were wrong. The moments we were right. We moments we wish we could have spent with people before it was too late. The moments we wish we could take back. The moments we wish we could live in forever. These are the details that make up our stories.

The word “account” means to recount a tale or story. We are trained to focus on these details and document them to tell the story of what’s happened within the past year. This is our job, our profession, but we often fail at documenting the moments and stories that make up our story and our experiences. The thing about details is that they are easy to forget, and without documenting them we lose part of ourselves and we fail to learn what we did right and wrong

This right now is one of those moments. The moment we want to rush through so we can get out of here, but the moment we have rushed towards for so long and desired so badly. This is the moment we pulled all-nighters for. The moment we dreamed of when we kept getting tests and memos back after they had been torn to shreds. This is the moment where we celebrate all the struggle we have shared. The moment you repeatedly thought would never arrive.

This is also the moment where we say goodbye for now. We say goodbye to the 40 acres. We say goodbye to our professors. We say goodbye to each other. This is the last moment we all have together, living in the same city, working toward the same goal, sharing our stories together. This is the moment we are all Texas Exes.

But let me be clear. This maybe goodbye for now, but this is not the ending of the story. This is the moment where we begin.