Dollars, Sense, Doing Right Thing

04/20/2010
By From the Lowell Sun

By David Perry

Of course, students in Mary Ellen Morris' cost-management systems class at UMass Lowell learn about dollars.

But they also learn sense. And ethics.

Morris, a second-year visiting professor with a 30-year career as a comptroller and CFO, says that in order for her students to understand fully the implications of unethical behavior, they must first know it is "real people" who are affected by the likes of Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff.

So Morris, who spent "about 85 percent" of her career in the corporate world, built an extra-credit component into her class: Do good, earn points.

This semester, she directed a food drive for Merrimack Valley Food Bank that yielded 376 pounds of food. She helped the Lowell Humane Society, which has been heavily burdened by the sagging economy, with 100 pounds of donations, and directed other students toward registration for bone-marrow donors, in honor of a fellow teacher who recovered from cancer thanks to a marrow transplant.

"Years ago, I told myself if I had a chance to teach, one of the things I would emphasize in the classroom is ethics," said Morris, 53.

"And as we all know, in the worlds of business and finance there's been a lot of unethical behavior for a number of years. And it has had horrendous consequences on the people at the lower levels of society. I want to help the kids understand this. If people feel connected to the community they will see real people who live there and understand that such behavior has consequences." She wondered how to do it.

"You could read about these things, but they wouldn't hit home in the same way as doing something. When I taught at first I saw some of the kids struggle, and wanted to find a way to succeed, but make it something they have to work for. I knew there was a great need at the Merrimack Valley Food Bank and the Lowell Humane Society, where I had adopted in the past."

A senior in Morris' cost management systems class, who wished to remain anonymous wrote to say "it's her commitment to ethics and humanitarianism" that makes the class exceptional. While she is a "great professor," she has also "been stressing all semester the importance of helping others, acting ethically, and contributing to community, and when we do something to help others, she gives us all the credit."

Morris said she spent the last seven years of her accounting career in the health-care field but when schools began seeking faculty, she jumped at the chance to take an accelerated certification program.

Morris said there's been a shortage of accounting faculty because the industry pays so much more than teaching.

"It all happened perfectly," she said. "I could never have planned it. I wanted to take a break from the industry and the craziness.

"I'm able to bring a little bit of real life to the classroom," she said. "Teaching is wonderful, fabulous. You know, people lament the kids this, the current generation that. But I'm not worried a bit, especially knowing the students I've had at UMass Lowell. They have so much heart."