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The six men sat at the front of the room, representing a wealth of practical business knowledge: Chief executive officer. Hedge fund manager. Bank manager. Chief financial officer. Escrow agent. Accountant.
In the audience, 23 UW-Superior students studying business ethics and fraud examination and investigation listened intently to the six men describe how they all came to be residents of the Federal Prison Camp in Duluth.
Taking her fraud examination students to the prison camp so they can interview white collar criminals is a project of Connie O'Brien, an accounting lecturer in the university's Department of Business and Economics. For this trip she was accompanied by Assistant Professor Bruce Kibler and students in his business ethics course.
Part of business education
To O'Brien, exposing the students to business people who have broken the law is an important part of their business education.
"It's an excellent way to connect information the students learn in class with reality," she said. "These are topics we talk about in class, but until the students actually go (to the prison camp) they may think it's exaggerated or it's not really like that. After they hear inmates speak, they're surprised at how easy it is to cross that line and get into trouble."
The prison camp cooperates by allowing inmates to participate in the education sessions without pay or credit. The participants recount their crimes to the entire group, and then sit for interviews with small groups of students.
Describing how it's done
Some of the inmates were somber while others took a more joking approach. Some described how they took large amounts of money, or provided false financial information, or got involved in conflicts of interest or dubious financial exchanges. Some described in detail how they committed their crime. Some pointed out that reduced staffing at troubled companies made it easier to hide their tracks.
O'Brien said it's important for the students to hear how the inmates describe their acts and their degree of guilt. "It's good for students to hear how these crimes are rationalized so they can recognize the red flags if they ever encounter them," she said.
Some of the inmates used the session to deliver a message to the students.
"Define your moral foundation and decide what line you won't cross, because it's a matter of 'when' not 'if' you'll be faced with a situation some day," the hedge fund manager told the students. "It's easier than you think to end up sitting where we are."
As they left, many students seemed impressed by the session.
Kristin Marshall, an accounting major from Duluth, described the session as "eye-opening."
"The inmate in our group told some moral and ethical stories so we wouldn't go down the same path," she said.
Jonathan Leland, an accounting and finance major from Superior, described it as "a good learning experience to hear what people did and what they were convicted of."
Positive reaction from students
O'Brien said her students generally react favorably to the education session. "Many say it's a highlight of their college experience. We get a very positive reaction."
She's glad the session makes an impression, and she hopes the ethical lessons will be permanent. "They learn it from their days in college: They know what's right and what's wrong."
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