National Lutheran News

Telling the truth can land you in the hot seat

Colleen Rowley

Colleen Rowley

Colleen Rowley spoke about her whistleblower role.

Ethical behavior in Am-erican culture appears to be on the decline. That’s according to Colleen Rowley, a Twin Cities mother and careerwoman who grew up in a Lutheran family in a small Iowa town, and ended up one of Time magazine’s women of the year. Rowley blew the whistle on her employer, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 2001.

Rowley, a graduate of the ELCA’s Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa, spoke about ethics and integrity during a Saturday morning presentation on March 13 at Lake Nokomis Lutheran Church in south Minneapolis.

She talked about the 13-page letter she wrote that questioned the FBI’s re-sponse to the Zacarias Mous-saoui arrest. After the contents of the missive were leaked to the media, she became the center of a firestorm of controversy and her job was in jeopardy.

Time Magazine named Rowley one of its “Persons of the Year” in 2002, recognizing her for having taken “professional and personal risks to blow the whistle.”
Before sending her now-famous letter, Rowley told the March 13 audience, “I couldn’t sleep for two days.” But, she said, “At some point a whistleblower stands up and says, ‘This is not right.’”

She said, “In most cases of whistleblowing, it’s no-win for the one who takes the step — usually he or she gets fired. But, in the long-term, you will frequently be vindicated.”
Referring to a recently-published book, The Cheating Culture by David Callahan, she said, “Around 70% of current high school kids admit to cheating on exams.” She explained that once, when she quoted that statistic, a school teacher came forward and said, “Among the very brightest students, it’s more like 85%.”

The more money you have, Rowley said, the easier it is to cheat and get away with cheating. That’s why the Securities and Exchange Commission goes after waitresses [who use illegal insider trading tips to get quick profits], and leaves the top businesspeople alone.”

Why are young people so caught up in unethical behavior? Rowley says parents aren’t helping them with values formation at the right times. “I think the most sane response is to grab those 10- and 12-year-olds and build a moral foundation in them while they’re still pliable. The results won’t show for a while, but eventually they will.”

One definition of integrity, according to Rowley, is “self-policing.” She said, “We need to take responsibility for ourselves and our own behavior.”

She told about an experience she had in high school French class. “I wrote a perfect exam, but I forgot to put my name on the paper. I got an F. The teacher agreed to adjust my grade if I’d present a report every Friday on French history — in French!”

She said, “Nowadays, if a teacher did that, the parents would be at school with a lawyer. And those are the values kids learn today.”

Responding to a question posed by Metro Lutheran, Rowley said her religious upbringing shaped her later life, but admitted she fell away from church for a while after college “because I was turned off by the self-righteousness of narrow-minded people in churches.”

She added with a smile, “That changede after 9/11. These days, you can’t keep me out of church.”