“Opportunity” is an interesting word, especially when used in association with unethical behavior. Opportunity is what happens when looters steal sneakers from a retail outlet after a natural disaster, and the same type of opportunity can entice the vice president of a university to steal $339,000 from a student-faculty bank account over 11 years. Educators on the take – Is it possible?
Dennis R. Black
On the surface, Dennis Black was the kind of administrator any university could only hope to have in its fold. He was a vice president who was in charge of all of the University of Buffalo’s campus life, and all of the services supplied to the university’s dormitories and dining halls. It was a huge responsibility. He got along famously with the students and was held out as an example of how a good administrator should be. Indeed, he led the United Way campaigns for both 2012 and 2013. Mr. Black was scheduled to become chairman of the board for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.
Unfortunately, the model administrator and leading citizen was a thief. He pleaded guilty in the State Supreme Court. He offered little in the way of excuses and in fact Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn Jr. said that Black had embarrassed the entire community. It is not even possible to point to Mr. Black spending the money for philanthropical purposes. In fact, he spent the stolen money on concert tickets and sporting events, travel, his son’s wedding (a double embarrassment), a private club membership, staff parties and vacations. In order to make the scheme work, Black had to file a false state tax return. When unethical decisions occur, it often leads to other unethical decisions to cover them up.
This once powerful administrator with the “ends-means” problem, is facing anywhere from 5 to 15 years in jail for the theft, and up to 4 years for filing a false tax return. In addition, there is monetary restitution he must satisfy. The university expects him to repay the $339,000 he stole, and then there are the back taxes on the stolen amount, which amount to more than $22,000. Of course, we are not even talking about his destroyed reputation, what he did to his family, friends and co-workers.
The web he weaved was flimsy at best, Black resigned almost immediately after the university’s president questioned him about the missing funds.
We might wonder why a man of his stature would commit such a set of crimes? It comes down to need and to rationalization.
Black did not need the money to pay off debts or medical expenses. He spent the money on frivolity and status climbing. For example, Buffalo’s Saturn Club, is an exclusive club in a large Tudor Mansion with magnificent lead glass windows. The mansion was built in 1922 and constructed with beautiful woodwork, lavish dining areas, fireplaces and even an indoor swimming pool. It cost Black $34,000 to join. He wanted to feel rich and be “respected” by community leaders. He wanted to be a somebody. Better than that, he had a need to be somebody because he felt himself to be inadequate.
This is an important point. The need for someone to commit unethical behavior does not necessarily mean money. It can also mean ego. As Mr. Black sits in a jail cell, and he probably will, he will have a lot of time to think about where his need to be a somebody landed him.
Circling back to the opening example, a dumb kid stealing a bunch of sneakers from a retail store is rationalizing that the store owner is rich and the owner’s insurance policy will pay off for the owner like a slot machine. Somewhere in Dennis Black’s mind was the thought that no one would miss the money and that the students, their parents and the government (local, state and federal) would be an endless resource.
While Black might have rationalized he would somehow repay the money, more than likely he thought he was a man beyond reproach and that no one would miss the $320,000. In other words, in his mind he was a big shot who did not need to justify himself to anyone.
In reality, he was no different than the kid stealing the sneakers. Except that Dennis Black could very well spend the rest of his life in prison. Educators on the take – Is it possible?
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