The Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity: A Q & A with Associate Director Matt LePere
by Dan Boardman ’14, Zicklin School of Business
After eight years at the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity, Associate Director Matt LePere answers questions and shares his thoughts on American debate and special programs at Baruch.
Matthew, thank you so much for taking the time to talk about your work and that of the Center. For those who are unfamiliar, can you describe what the Center does?
The Center serves as a forum for discussion of a broad range of topics facing corporate America and our financial markets. We try to provide multiple viewpoints on contemporary issues, so that a discussion flows from the differences in opinion.
We try to be a safe place. Academia is supposed to be a place where you can talk about anything. Practitioners, regulators, academics and students can all meet, discuss these hot topics and work towards solutions that will increase the efficiency of our economic system.
A safe place, why do you pay attention to that?
Controversy can make presenting different viewpoints or addressing multiple sides to a complex issue difficult. For example, look at the Politics of Fracking program last academic year. It was important to bring people to the table who have legitimate things to say on both sides of the issue. As you might expect, many in New York City are anti-fracking, but we didn’t want to simply present the case of why it might not be good. We wanted to look at the realities on both sides so that people could make an informed decision on which direction our country should go.
And the controversies the Center examines relate to issues like transparency, corporate governance, legal and ethical behavior, and executive accountability?
There’s no shortage of important business ethics topics, unfortunately.
Can you share with readers more about the people at the Center?
There is a small core group at the Center. Above me is the director, David Rosenberg, a professor here in the law department. I contribute in the dialogue with Dr. Rosenberg, where his focus is the programming and mine is the day-to-day operations of the Center. We have an extremely dedicated conference coordinator, Ruzdo Srdanovic, who started as a student here and later took on more responsibility.
We are the three core people, but we branch out much farther. We work with faculty members with unique expertise on our various programs. For instance, Professor Doug Carmichael chairs our auditing conference. Doug is better qualified than just about anybody in America to fill that role. He was the Chief Auditor of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), created in the aftermath of the accounting scandal with Arthur Anderson. Another example is Norm Strauss, graduate of Baruch College, who went on to have a very successful and influential career in public accounting. He chairs the financial reporting conference. We are able to attract top speakers from the Securities and Exchange Commission to the chairman of the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), because of the respect people in the industry have for Norm, his career and for Baruch College.
The list goes on. We just recently did a program on Walmart with Dr. Prakash Sethi, who is a bonafide expert on business ethics, corporate governance and supply chains. We try to leverage the wealth of information, academic expertise and real world expertise here to the entire Baruch community and beyond.
A large part of this job is getting to listen in on panels and interact with scholars. I’ve had the benefit of being in the audience, which allows a unique perspective. Each year I’ve been able to contribute more to topics that we were discussing. I feel like I’ve become better informed on the issues themselves, and am better able to identify ways we can provide more engaging, insightful programs. That’s something I enjoy.
Already, there is a wide range of issues up for discussion on the Center’s fall calendar. How do you choose what to address? From your perspective, which is the most pressing right now?
To get a clearer picture of how the Center directs its attention, we look at our activities as a three-legged stool. One leg is integrity in financial reporting. Programs that support that are the financial reporting conference and the auditing conference. Another leg is corporate governance. The recent Walmart program yesterday fell into that. We also did programs on Dodd-Frank, external regulation and other corporate governance topics ranging from say-on-pay to proxy voting. The final leg is corporate social responsibility, which can be extremely broad depending on how you define it. We do a lot of sustainability issues under that umbrella, but also tackle social issues, labor rights and analysis of external stakeholders. Those are the three general topics of concern to us.
I personally think business’s role in environmental sustainability is one of the most important ones. Increasingly scientists are in agreement that climate change is taking place and mankind is greatly contributing to it. Business is going to play a key role in helping humanity face our situation. Businesses have solved a lot of our problems in the past, and I’m hopeful they can do it again.
We noted that you are also the co-chair of Baruch’s Task Force on Sustainability. Is there a relationship between your work at the Center and the work you do on the Task Force?
I’m lucky enough to serve as a volunteer with a larger group that is passionate about the college and introducing everybody that comes through the door to sustainability concepts. It’s part of a larger CUNY initiative, Sustainable CUNY. When Matthew Goldstein was Chancellor of CUNY, he signed onto Mayor Bloomberg’s challenge to reduce greenhouse emissions 30% in 10 years (by 2017).
To accomplish that CUNY asked each constituent school to create its own sustainability group. A lot of the efforts are on the facilities side towards making our buildings more energy efficient. They are retrofitting steam traps, putting in more energy-efficient escalators, and putting a film on the windows that reduces energy used to cool buildings in the summer and heat them in winter.
My role with the Task Force goes towards engagement and student outreach. About a quarter of the Center’s programs are connected in part to sustainability, so there’s a clear overlap from a general sustainability perspective. As it pertains to the Center, it focuses almost exclusively on the role of corporations in sustainability on a macro-level, and is separate from the Task Force.
How did the conferences come to Baruch in the first place, and where are they headed in the near future?
One of Baruch’s core competencies is accountancy. Our people are extremely concerned with the profession. When the Enron scandal occurred, our college leadership, including then President Edward Regan, correctly saw that Baruch should have a role in bringing accountancy out from the shadow cast upon it. So they created a center for the integrity of financial reporting. The conference that came out of that was the beginning of the three-legged stool that we discussed earlier.
Larry Zicklin was generous enough to endow the Center in the name of his late cousin, Robert Zicklin. Larry was very close to Robert when they were growing up and looked on him as the epitome of a businessperson with integrity. At that point Larry Zicklin charged us at the Center with taking on our other two roles: corporate governance and corporate social responsibility.
The audit conference is now something where regulators come to make news. PCAOB Chairman James R. Doty came to Baruch last year and announced the PCAOB’s focus on ensuring the auditing profession wasn’t taking shortcuts to increase profitability at the expense of quality. In fact, there was a piece about his speech in Accounting Today.
Conference planning starts with the keynote speaker. Setting the direction and tone is a real collaboration. For instance with the audit conference, the keynote speaker sets the topic and a steering committee takes it from there. The committee is made up of representatives from the Big Four accounting firms and the next tier as well. Some have ties to Baruch. Some are alumni. Some of their firms recruit heavily from our students. There’s a natural connection that allows us to work with the industry.
Where Baruch’s faculty drives the program is in the panel discussion. Professor Carmichael chairs the steering committee, and new faculty member, Tom Ray, who was the second Chief Auditor of the PCAOB, provides insight into the regulatory community. We draw upon our network to identify the issues that are most pressing to industry and incorporate them to build an informative and engaging program. The panels that come out of that are where we put our fingerprint on conferences.
The financial reporting conference agenda is put together almost entirely by Norm Strauss. This is another approach, since we don’t adopt just one strategy. He is so ingrained in the industry that he has his finger on the pulse. Norm knows which topics are most pressing and builds those into the agenda every year.
What about other events planned at the Center?
There’s no real formula to setting the year’s overall agenda. A lot of it is ripped from the headlines like Law and Order. We see what’s in the Wall Street Journal and what people are blogging about. Then we leverage our networks.
There’s a new member of the faculty, Marc Edelman, who is an expert in the NCAA and the business of sports. David Rosenberg met him through their work in the law department, and thought this would be a great opportunity to utilize our faculty’s expertise, highlight that member and touch on a hot topic that needed balanced discussion.
Sports Illustrated just ran a huge piece asking if now was the time to pay amateur athletes in college. How could we not ask one of the world’s top experts right here in our community to talk about it? It’s timely and we have the expertise in-house. That’s often how we get an event.
You must get to meet people from every corner of the college.
It’s great. We get to build relationships, and the more you learn about the college the more you realize the wealth of knowledge here. As that happens, you have more resources to tap into when the situation arises. Knowing what the college has to offer helps us connect the right people to the right programs.
Let’s talk about students. We come to school for many reasons, but there are often particular skills and opportunities we have in mind. We work jobs, take care of families, and are committed to our coursework. With limited time left over in our schedules, what do you say to students who feel that corporate integrity is too abstract to be relevant to their concerns?
A student’s time is at a premium, so if you’re going to ask them for one to two hours in a day you need a good reason. There are three motivations I see for why students participate in our programs: education outside the traditional classroom, networking and being exposed to different career paths.
First, students spend a lot of time and a good amount of money trying to educate themselves. Through its program, the Center provides the opportunity for extracurricular learning. We bring in the experts. Who better to learn from than the people who spend their lives implementing and overseeing the things we learn about in the classroom? It can provide a unique insight into areas students are already investing their time in.
Accountancy students should come hear from the people setting the standards they need to know. Management students should come learn from corporate sustainability officers at major corporations. If a students’ focus is on marketing, we bring in people who run communications for multi-billion dollar corporations. We also bring in faculty from other institutions, so students can benefit from New York’s broader academic community. Just learn from the best people.
Second is networking. Often our events draw audiences beyond the student body. Many are practitioners and alums interested in meeting current students. This can mean great things for a student’s career through unforeseen connections two or three times removed. By meeting new people, students can expand the possibilities.
A third reason is that students benefit from learning outside their main area of study. The experience can open their eyes to new opportunities. One of these programs could introduce students to professional paths they would excel in, enjoy and otherwise would not have considered.
On a side note, participating is a great way for students to prepare for interviews. In networking at these events, students will inevitably be asked about current business trends and controversies. If students can make reference to being part of discussion with experts, that goes a long way to showing potential employers that they are serious candidates. It’s not often that you get the chance to ask the Chairman of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board why he thinks it’s important for the US to go into China and audit American business units there. You get to do that at the Center.
Plus, the icing on the cake, it’s free and we have food. The Center tries to accommodate to the reality of student life. We all remember what it’s like to manage with a limited budget as a student.
What’s the best way to be informed about upcoming programs?
Get on our email announcement list. To do that, give me a call, stop by my office or shoot me an email at Matthew.LePere@baruch.cuny.edu with your address and ask me to add you to the list. We never charge current Baruch students to attend our programs. There are some which have limited student seating, so we might have to take a waitlist.
We love working with student groups, such as the graduate Sustainable Business Club, to act as a sounding board to our ideas. In that way, students can not only attend programs. They can also help us form and build one.
Is there anything else I’ve left out that the community at large should know?
If you cannot attend a program for any reason, check the Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity channel on the Baruch College Digital Media Library for a large number of past events available on demand. You can catch up on what you missed out on. Or look for us in outside media. The 12th Annual Financial Reporting Conference earned a huge feature in the CPA Journal. We are glad to be able to bring influential figures to campus and to familiarize this audience with Baruch College. The more we at the Center can let people know what the college offers and delivers, the more value a student’s diploma will have.
Matthew B. LePere is the Associate Director of the Robert Zicklin Center for Corporate Integrity and Co-chair of the Baruch College Task Force on Sustainability. Matthew joined Baruch College in 2005 as a Conference Coordinator. Prior to Baruch, he was an Associate Portfolio Manager at Sanford C. Bernstein Investment Research and Management. Matthew holds a B.S. from Cornell University.
Daniel Boardman is a Mitsui USA Scholar studying international business and decision sciences as a full-time MBA student, and a student member and NY chapter Webmaster of the Institute for Operations Research and Management Science (INFORMS). Prior to Baruch, Daniel held a variety of overseas posts in decision support, communications and education. He holds degrees from Carleton College and the City College of the City University of New York.