During her visit to the Fox School of Business, Cynthia Cooper put an auditorium holding 300 seats in her shoes as the whistleblower of one of the largest corporate scandals that catapulted her into the public consciousness.
Cooper, an accountant who served as the director of Internal Audit at WorldCom, a telecommunications giant, worked with her team to investigate and unearth $3.8 billion in fraud. At the time in 2002, it was the largest incident of accounting fraud in the U.S. Shortly after the fraud was uncovered, WorldCom filed for bankruptcy and collapsed.
“It was by far the most difficult thing I went through in my lifetime,” she says. “I weathered the storm with help from my family and my faith.”
During her talk “Ethical Leadership in the 21st Century,” she took students through the process of discovering the fraud. She also challenged them to think about the decisions they would have made and how those decisions would have impacted their lives and the lives of others. She detailed the backgrounds of the managers who had become complicit and explored the reasons why people make unethical choices.
Cooper harkened back to classic examples of moral dilemmas, such as the Milgram Experiment and the Parable of Sadhu to illustrate the point that these dilemmas are common, and can take on many different forms, such as cheating on a test or going over the speed limit.
“We have to prepare ourselves for these possibilities and recognize ethical dilemmas before we come to the crossroads,” she advises.
At one point in her presentation, Cooper had the group stand up, close their eyes and point to true north. Looking around the room, students were pointing in all different directions.
“You have to find your own moral compass,” she explains. “Define a mission statement and your core values. Find your courage, find a mentor, and don’t let yourself be intimidated.”
Cooper’s book about her life and the WorldCom fraud, Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower, was published in 2008. Profits from the book were given to universities and organizations for ethics education.
One such organization is the Student Center for the Public Trust (StudentCPT), created by the National Association of State Boards of Accountancy (NASBA). Temple University is one of the nationwide chapters that provides an interactive environment for ethical business behaviors and ideas to flourish. Temple StudentCPT, sponsored by Deloitte, allows students to engage with the business community, develop professional leadership skills and host high-caliber guest speakers.