“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. It is my pleasure to act as your host this evening. As you know, over the past twenty years or so, we have heard a rising chorus of criticism for the work of public schools. Much of that chorus has been made up of business and industry spokespeople, united in their assertion that our educational factories--to use their metaphor--have been turning out an unacceptable number of defective products. Tonight we are gathered to honor some of the voices in that chorus.
“Already these leaders have made a remarkable impact on our approach to public education. The ultimate goal of such schooling, in my own youth, was to prepare citizens equipped to handle their role in a democracy. Now, the goal is to prepare employees to function properly in the workplace. The emphasis is on marketable skills, on training students to think of their educational program, from the middle school years on, strictly in terms of how their courses will prepare them for a career. This is real progress!
“In more subtle ways, these leaders have also helped lay the groundwork for transitioning students from school to work. Strict new attendance policies, longer school years, and tougher graduation requirements all let students know, subliminally, that youth is not a time to goof off; it’s a training ground for fitting into the workforce. That message has been reinforced by virtually eliminating recreation and physical education from their schedules, along with such distractions as art, band, choir, etc. If students want to run around wildly or tootle on a horn, they can do it like any other worker—after the job, on their own time!
“One of the key elements in all this change has been a group of top-level executives who had the vision to create a business think-tank to influence policy-makers and public opinion on educational issues. And it is that organization—“Volunteer Industry Leaders for Education” – which we find ourselves members of, gathered tonight to celebrate the successes of the past two decades. V.I.L.E. has been a catalyst for transforming public education. Its members, despite the demands of their enormous responsibilities in the military-industrial complex, have dedicated themselves to this task. At the same time, we have created a new culture-hero for our times—the brash, dynamic, can-do CEO.
“So join with me now in recognizing the contributions certain of our members have made to American education, as they exemplify the qualities they seek to instill in our young people.
“The first honoree tonight is L. Dennis Kozlowski, who built Tyco International into a major international conglomerate. Dennis sends his regrets. He had a prior commitment, meeting with Manhattan prosecutors who have indicted him for sales tax evasion. Good luck, Dennis! Loved your art collection!
“Our second honoree, Kenneth Lay, former CEO of Enron, pioneered in trading energy futures, and helped build Enron into one of the largest corporations in the world. His Houston-based corporation is known for its aggressive courting of political allies and for its insider status. Mr. Lay has been the principal financial backer for the political career of another Texan, our current ‘national CEO,’ Mr. George Bush! Unfortunately, Mr. Lay had other obligations, and cannot be here this evening. Kenny Boy, I’m sure your old friends will stick by you!
“Our third honoree, the corporate leadership of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, is also unable to be here this evening. They are preparing an appeal to the $20 million fine they were levied for violating an agreement to stop marketing tobacco to youth, and say it is eating up all their time. Guys, we miss you!
Our fourth honoree, H. Ross Perot, led the fight for educational reform in Texas. Ross planned to be here, but at the last minute he had to help prepare a response to a subpoena from the California attorney general’s office. Legislators there have alleged that Perot Systems coached energy traders in ways to manipulate the state’s energy markets, costing California consumers and taxpayers billions of dollars. Befuddle ‘em with flipcharts, Ross!
Our fifth honoree, Ken Kurtzman, CEO of Ashford.com, the online jewelry sellers, had a prior engagement. Ken was able to settle his fraud accusation with the S.E.C. by paying a penalty of only $60,000. Way to play hardball, Ken!
“Our sixth honorees, the Rigas family, control Adelphia Communications, the giant cable operators. Unfortunately, they had to meet with investigators concerned about huge undisclosed transactions between Adelphia and other family ‘entities.’ Good move, firing your auditors, folks!
Our seventh honorees are those ever-reliable investment counselors at Merrill Lynch. Unfortunately, they’re working overtime on damage control, and also send their regrets. Those internal memos in which their analysts trashed stocks they were recommending to customers jumped up and bit them. Cheer up, guys and gals; that $100 million settlement was less than you spend on office supplies and postage!
Our eighth and final honoree is Sam Waksal, CEO of ImClone Systems. We thought Sam was going to be able to make it, once he was released on bail, but then came that subpoena from that House subcommittee, and he had to go to Washington. It’s embarrassing to have somebody ask if you ‘put personal profiteering ahead of patients’; I wouldn’t answer it either! Keep pleading the Fifth Amendment, Sam. That’s what it’s there for!
So it’s a clean sweep! None of them could make it! But these empty chairs on the stage represent so much that corporate leadership has meant, not only in shaping our current educational agenda, but American society as a whole. I’m sure you’ll join me now in putting your hands together for all of our honorees, and not just for them, but the countless others who have worked just as diligently toward the same ends. Before we close, we’d like to ask Wendy Gramm to lead us in ‘God Bless America.’ That will conclude our program, and you can return to your caviar. Thank you, and good night.”
© Tony Russell, 2002