A Drawing Serves as a Reminder
As Lee Cowen narrated his story, “The Higher Purpose of Doodling” on CBS Sunday Morning, I started thinking about Mary Willingham. Ms. Willingham, a learning specialist at the University of North Carolina, has blown the whistle on the reading ability of athletes attending UNC. Although Ms. Willingham has been conducting her research for years, the University suddenly suspended her research privileges after she appeared in a CNN investigative report. Moreover, she has been threatened and vilified by academic and athletic officials. It’s hard for me to judge the accuracy of Ms. Willingham’s allegations. However, given the current status of big-time college athletics and the vehemence of UNC’s reaction, I am fairly certain that Ms. Willingham’s charges have some validity.
Here’s the connection to the “Higher Purpose of Doodling.” At one point in the story, which included drawings from my business notebooks, Mr. Cowen flipped past a drawing that I call “In Exile”. It was the most emotional part of Mr. Cowen’s visit to Chapel Hill because as he flipped past that page, I immediately remembered when I drew the picture. Fortunately, he didn’t ask me about it. More than a decade ago, I uncovered irregularities in a mutual fund. You can read about it in this blog at “Peering Beneath the Surface: Uncovering A Fraud (October 29, 2012)” or the SEC’s website. While my employer did all the right things with respect to reimbursing every investor that suffered economic injury, we got into a disagreement about who should be held responsible. After a serious disagreement, I was removed from my office and placed on an empty floor while we negotiated a termination agreement.
When I look at the drawing, I vividly remember the difficulty in finding an attorney to represent me. I called a series of employment lawyers, and only one small firm was willing to take me on. Some firms said they had a conflict, and others told me they weren’t comfortable opposing my employer. They suggested I find a lawyer in another city. My lawyer told me to go into that office every day and keep regular business hours. So for six weeks, I sat on that empty floor and tried to stay busy while the lawyers negotiated. I had time to draw and plenty of stress as inspiration.
A funny thing happened after I signed the termination agreement, which called for me to stay with the firm for another six months. No sooner was the ink dry than I was asked to oversee a project to upgrade the firm’s call center and sent on a series of due diligence trips, including a 24-hour trip to Rio de Janeiro. I asked a senior executive how he could possibly reengage me in the business after all we’d been through. He told me that he was going to get value in exchange for paying me for six months, and that the problem had never been about my integrity or honesty.
As I look at that drawing, I feel for Mary Willingham. Institutions will do some incredibly nasty things to protect their reputations.