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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: What lessons are colleges’ guest speakers teaching?

Last year, business students at Gonzaga University had a very experienced guest lecturer.

This visiting instructor to GU’s wonderful study-abroad program in Florence brought oodles of “real-world experience” to the classroom. He could provide these aspiring financiers with firsthand knowledge of the very highest levels of American business and finance. You might say he was uniquely positioned to do so.

Angelo Mozilo might be the single most blameworthy – or at the least the single most blamed – figure in the 2008 financial crash. All of the sociopathic behavior of the big-money financial sector – bad loans hustled on bad faith, insider trading, regulatory dereliction, cronyism and the shocking cynicism inherent in a system that produces massive profits off a game rigged to punish the poor and shuffle risk to investors – all of it can be found in the story of Mozilo and the company he once led, Countrywide Financial.

Countrywide piloted the boom in predatory lending – aggressively pushing loans that Mozilo himself termed “toxic” and “poisonous.” It ran the infamous “Friends of Angelo” program, giving sweetheart deals to political pals. He has paid tens of millions to settle various claims, and Countrywide has paid tens of billions – with a B – to do the same. Mozilo is barred from leading a public company ever again. Time magazine put him at the top of its list of “25 People to Blame for the Financial Crisis,” and Portfolio magazine declared him the second-worst American CEO of all time.

He remains unrepentant, telling Bloomberg News Service last month that he’s baffled as to why anyone thinks he did anything wrong.

And Gonzaga remains convinced that Mozilo should be teaching its students. Coincidentally, perhaps, Mozilo has given lots and lots of money to GU.

Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice, part of the team that brought us the ill-conceived and dishonestly sold Iraq war, will soon be speaking at an event sponsored by Whitworth University.

Rice is a former secretary of state and current political science professor at Stanford. She also, according to the Center for Public Integrity, made 56 false statements in the run-up to the Iraq war and flatly denied proven human-rights abuses in American POW camps. Coincidentally, perhaps, she remains a famous person and a political attraction, and she can draw crowds at $600 a table.

Critics are protesting Rice’s appearance, as they do everywhere she speaks. But the problem is not that she – or Mozilo – are allowed to speak. In fact, both Rice and Mozilo present fascinating possibilities for the examination of questions that might benefit young people considering how to live their lives – questions of ethics and morality, of social justice and social responsibility.

But is that what’s happening? Or are they being presented merely as experts, as celebrities – as exemplars? Are these just additional chapters in a never-ending tale of national forgetting?

Nancy Hines, the director of communications for Whitworth, said that is not the case with the Rice appearance. Whitworth invites a wide range of speakers, and many of them draw objections from somebody. The goal for the university is to provoke conversation and teach students how to engage in civil debate, she said.

That’s surely in short supply these days.

She also said that Rice’s value as a speaker goes beyond her role as secretary of state. She was raised by a Presbyterian minister in challenging circumstances and rose to success in government and academia. About 1,900 people are expected at Rice’s speech Thursday at the Spokane Convention Center; after her remarks, Whitworth President Beck Taylor will ask her questions submitted by students and others. Hines said the forum will be civil but won’t evade difficult questions.

“We invite people from across the religious, political and social spectrum to our campus,” she said. “It really is very much about creating a conversation.”

The ties between Mozilo and GU are much deeper. He’s a former member of the school’s board of trustees. Four of his children attended the university. The Gonzaga-in-Florence program is housed in the … Mozilo Center. The university has an Angelo and Phyllis Mozilo Professor of Finance. The Mozilos have given millions to GU, as individuals and through their foundation.

So maybe it’s only natural – depending on your view of the financial realities of higher education versus the mission statements – that Mozilo might be invited to help prepare tomorrow’s leaders at GU, even as the totals for settlements involving Countrywide misdeeds in the financial crisis soar beyond $71 billion. His settlements for personal responsibility exceed $60 million.

In his interview with Bloomberg last month, Mozilo discussed his appearance before the GU students in September 2013.

“I taught them the basics of finance based on my own experiences,” he said. “I really enjoyed being among them. It was very refreshing for me.”

GU offered written comments about Mozilo’s relationship to the school, arguing that his appearances fit into the tradition of inquiry and education that places a high value on diversity of opinion and perspective.

“We believe it’s important to expose students to people with various points of view and experiences,” the university’s statement said. “That’s why we have welcomed a broad range of guests, from Archbishop Desmond Tutu to Dr. Jane Goodall to Thomas Friedman and others.”

From Desmond Tutu to Jane Goodall to Thomas Friedman to Angelo Mozilo.

An article last September in the GU student newspaper, the Bulletin, noted that Mozilo has been invited frequently to the Florence program.

One student told the newspaper: “I don’t understand why he speaks. The way his speeches are framed is wrong. They say ‘Here’s this great businessman, we should all learn from him.’ When really he needs to say ‘I did something wrong, here’s what you should do instead.’ ” 

It makes you hopeful for the future, to hear a young person so clearly learning the right lesson. Even if it’s not the one being taught.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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