NEW YORK -- Watching last week's free fall in the stock market, an observer couldn't help looking for symbols of what may the end of the go-go years of greed and frenzied speculation on Wall Street. One symbolic figure might be financier Asher B. Edeleman and the bounty he recently offered Columbia University business school students to assist him in the takeover war.
Edelman is an interesting example of the spirit of Wall Street in the 1980s. He sports a formidable modern-art collection, board memberships on the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the American Ballet Theatre, the Alvin Alley dance company and Bard College. He is a benefactor of thehomeless and is, no doubt, kind to animals. But Ascher Edelman lives two lives.
In his personal life, Edelman seems a gentleman. In his business life, he is known as a predator. Companies are flipped and traded like baseball cards. A man who would teach his children to be patient and share their toys tells his business colleagues that a preoccupation with short-term shareholder values and greed is okay.
Edelman is a believer, and this semester he agreed to teach two hours a week at Columbia's School of Business. As first reported by Leslie Wayne of The New York Times, students adored his course, "Corporate Raiding: The Art of War." Not only did Edelman bring dynamism and first-hand experience as a corporate raider, he brought to class a bounty. At the second gathering of his 15 students, he dangled a $100,000 finder's fee to anyone who unearthed a company he could take over.
Edelman says the administration of the college at first approved the reward. But this week John C. Burton, dean of the business school, rapped Edelman's knuckles and ruled that the ethics of laissez-faire economics were sometimes in conflict with a rounded education and the public good. No bounty, please.
Edelman responded, not unfairly, that his students were there to learn a trade. He noted that the wall between the university and business has been scaled many times, as faculty jump over to consult on the outside. "Other professors teach that if you do my research work and it is good you'll get an A -- but I get paid for it!" Edelman mused in a telephone interview. "I teach that if you do your own work well and you're successful, you'll get an A -- and you'll get paid for it!"
The case study approach at business schools is designed to expose students to business reality, something Edelman says he is trying to do. "The real fact is that what I teach is different than what they teach," he says. "They teach students to position themselves for success. To try to be in the right place at the right time. I teach them something different: Don't float. Think of yourself as an owner . . . . If you're an owner you're not interested in flying the corporate jet. You're interested in flying your own jet!"
The weakness of so much of the leave-it-to-the-marketplace philosophy is encapsulated in the jet. For like the $100,000, too many impressionable students will focus on the jet as a goal. The status symbol will become all that matters. The $100,000 bounty is so huge as to make it not just different in degree from other college rewards but different in kind. "If he wanted to test students he could have offered a free lunch," observes Rita E. Hauser, a senior partner at Stroock & Strook & Lavan.
Columbia's decision, Edelman told reporter Wayne, was "a violation of the integrity of the classroom, of my right to teach after I was hired and of the student's right to learn." The presumption here is that in a classroom, as in a stock market, anything goes. Edelman is concerned about his freedom, about being unfettered by regulation. He is concerned about the value of ownership, but not as much about the value of business patience, or how the game is played. Yet a university is supposed to expose students to values, as well as fungible information.
Laissez-faire conservatives often try to have it both ways. On the one hand they usually insist, rightly, that public schools should try to inculcate values, including the value of, say, abstaining from early sex. On the other hand, they shy from teaching social values -- like generosity.
Think about the title of Edelman's course: "Corporate Raiding: The Art of War." Edelman unabashedly promotes corporate warfare. Cutthroat behavior he would not condone in one of his dance companies, he excuses on the corporate battlefield -- if it maximizes current shareholder values. Unavoidably, Edelman downplays other values.
"There is an ethical dimension to the whole corporate-takeover mentality, which is what does it do to the working people in this country who lose their jobs or to the companies that cannibalize themselves in order to fend off a takeover," says Dr. Paul LeClerc, provost of Lehman College. Even if unintended, the implicit message Edelman imparts is that what matters is doing the deal, making money, winning the "war."
When historians sift through the entrails of this selfish decade for symbols of excess, they would do well not to ignore the bounty offered Columbia students by financier Asher B. Edelman.
Ken Auletta is the author of "Greed and Glory on Wall Street" and a columnist for The New York Daily News.