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University of Nebraska-Lincoln: Whistleblower Panel Featured at State Farm Ethics Lecture

September 26, 2017
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The University of Nebraska–Lincoln College of Business renewed its tradition of championing business ethics with the annual State Farm Ethics Lecture held September 20 at the Lied Center for Performing Arts. The event featured a whistleblower panel moderated by Dana Gold of the Government Accountability Project (GAP). She credited Nebraska with being a leading player in the arena of business ethics in higher education.

“We started our first whistleblower tour at Nebraska in 2011,” said Gold. “The College of Business really helped launch our program which positioned us to visit over 25 universities. Now we’re doing a reunion date here with our ongoing program, ‘Truth Be Told: Reflections from Whistleblowers.’”

The two panelists included Dr. Walt Tamosaitis, who blew the whistle about safety issues at the Hanford Nuclear Site in Eastern Washington, and Richard Bowen, formerly of Citigroup, and currently senior lecturer of accounting at the University of Texas at Dallas, who warned executives about risky business practices related to mortgage lending prior to the financial collapse of 2007. Both speakers emphasized the need for business students to be aware of the potential ethical pitfalls they may face in their careers.

“I want students to think about potential circumstances, their personal values and the real possibility that at some point they will probably be asked to do something that makes them very uncomfortable,” said Bowen. “If they’ve thought about it ahead of time, hopefully it allows them to reflect on what they considered earlier, which will give them a better ability to assess what they need to do. Too many students go into a career never thinking about the ethical issues, and all of a sudden they wake up facing a set of ethical dilemmas they never visualized.”

Tamosaitis found himself ostracized at his company when he started reporting safety concerns he believed could cause major devastation at a nuclear power plant site.  

“When I raised concerns, I was cut out of meetings and followed to see who I was talking to,” said Tamosaitis. “I eventually wrote a letter to a safety oversight group, not realizing my company was already being looked at from the outside. I became the inside source because I had a Ph.D., a business degree and 40 years working in the business. I ended up testifying before Congress and although I lost most everything I had worked to achieve, my voice was ultimately heard.”

The panelists encouraged students to discuss ethics with classmates and faculty while in college. Having confidants you can trust may pay off down the road according to Tamosaitis.

“Networking from day one is very important. I had not done that but after I made some calls I found out about GAP and they helped me through the procedures I needed to maneuver as a whistleblower. Without the help of GAP I wouldn’t have made nearly the impact. They marketed my story around the world to get my word out through print, TV and radio. Even though there are no winners in something like this the plant eventually got shut down and parts of it are still shut down,” he said.

Bowen also emphasized the importance of GAP and reaching out to those you trust.

“Get guidance on how to pursue your particular situation and it will protect you. Hopefully it will also make it more effective regarding resolving the issue you’re dealing with,” he said.

Dr. Janet Near, professor and Howard Hawks Chair in Business Ethics and Leadership, helped facilitate a luncheon between the speakers, faculty and students of the College of Business. She believes exposing students to ethical dilemmas while in college stays with them well into their careers.

“It’s extremely valuable for students to hear from these whistleblowers because most will likely encounter wrongdoing in their careers,” said Near. “Most of the time journalists looking from the outside aren’t going to be the ones figuring it out when something bad happens. Modern organizations are very big and complex so employees are the ones directly involved and the first line of defense. From a societal point of view, it’s important we have employees we can rely on when a nuclear plant is going to blow up or we’re facing the great recession.”

The event, co-sponsored by the College of Law and College of Journalism and Mass Communications, attracted more than 500 students and was held in conjunction with Business Week at the College of Business. It concluded with a question and answer session from the audience following the panel member’s personal stories. 

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