Among the factors I did not weigh in choosing a graduate program is the number of former prison inmates I would encounter in my studies. I imagine for the vast majority of current and prospective graduate students that is not a concern. As it turns out in the MPA program this semester I have had the opportunity to hear from a handful of white collar criminals during our required course: MPA Distinguished Speaker Lyceum. It also turns out that hearing their stories has been a highly rewarding part of the program.

As these professionals shared their stories I noticed that all rationalized  a genuine belief that what they were doing would be fine and none mentioned evaluating their decisions with someone they respected .  I think these trends tell us something about how to become a white collar criminal and maybe something about how to avoid it.

In the course of sharing his story our most recent speaker said two things in which I thought the semantics were relevant to this idea of prison avoidance:

First he said about arriving at prison “I didn’t intend to be there” and it occurred to me that from his story he also didn’t intend to NOT be there.

Second he mentioned that “intent is a critical element of a white collar crime” and it crossed my mind that intent also seems to be a critical element of NOT white collar crime.

If we self-rationalize that being a good person does not require deliberate attention we are already exhibiting one of the common behaviors among [my admittedly small sample of] white collar criminals. I have found that the MPA program does a good job (Bloomberg seems to agree) of challenging us to confront ethical issues deliberately rather than simply hope that ethics will develop naturally.

So as I listened to each story of rationalization I thought  how I will make sure that my story will be different.  I concluded that if I maintain relationships with people who I trust and respect and go to those people to help me evaluate possible actions, the logic behind them, and their potential outcomes I can avoid the slippery slope of lying and stealing which these people followed to jail.

This discovery has increased my satisfaction with the MPA program and the relationships I build here. As I interact with the intelligent, ethical and interesting people in the MPA, I find that they challenge me to be more like them. In contrast to going to jail, I find that to be a very attractive option.