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Briloff lecture focuses on virtue

All of us are bound to one another by the idea of accountability, the president and CEO of the New York Public Library argued in the 21st annual Abraham Briloff Lecture on Accountability and Society.

Paul LeClerc delivered the Oct. 25 talk, titled “Accountability and Society: Beyond Accounting,” as part of the lecture series honoring Briloff, the Emanuel Saxe Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Baruch College and presidential professor of accounting and ethics at Binghamton.

LeClerc, a Queens native and Voltaire scholar, holds a doctorate in French literature. He taught at Union College and was a City University of New York administrator before becoming president of Hunter College. He met Briloff while serving as provost at Baruch College.

He has held his current position with the New York Public Library since 1993.

“The notion of accountability is one that is now shared globally and that affects literally all forms of human organization as well as every single individual,” said LeClerc, who shared an anecdote from Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat to illustrate the point.

LeClerc used a term put forward by Princeton professor Robert Keohane — “accountability relationships” — to discuss the ways in which many people have legally defined responsibilities to an organization. That’s true of library and

university presidents, he noted, as well as elected officials and business leaders.

They must rely on lawyers, accountants, investment officers and others who know the law and also how regulations are changing.

“Successful management is … about how good your intuitions are and how good the staff is that you work with and who support you,” he said.

LeClerc believes these relationships also exist in less formal ways. Informal “accountability relationships” — what Keohane terms “contested accountability relationships” — could include those between faculty members and their students, among colleagues and between citizens and the environment, for example. These interactions don’t follow rules rooted in the law, but the individuals involved nevertheless have certain expectations of one another.

“In other words, no person is an island,” LeClerc said. “And not a single one of us is wholly autonomous or free of the countless bonds of accountability relationships that are embedded in, it seems, every single aspect of our lives.”

The values that define accountability can be learned at home, in a religious institution, at school or even on the Internet, he said. Ultimately, though, one’s relationship with oneself — a sense of integrity and virtue — is at the heart of the matter.

LeClerc, who peppered his remarks with references to Greek and Roman philosophers and historians, said Briloff reminds him of Cato the Elder because of his oratorical skill, personal modesty, fearlessness and love of family.

“Like Cato the Elder, Abe Briloff has served for decades as the conscience of his age,” LeClerc said, “certainly with regard to the business community. He has matched his ancient counterpart in his fearlessness and not only his willingness but in his absolute delight in taking on some of the biggest and most powerful firms.”

Indeed, when Briloff took the stage to share his views on the speech, he immediately homed in on the recent Hewlett-Packard scandal as well as the apparently common practice of backdating stock options.

“What could possibly have gotten into them?” Briloff asked repeatedly, while decrying what he termed an “epidemic” of bad behavior among corporate leaders.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08