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A Secret Symposium

Leading universities see themselves as bastions of intellectual openness and sanctuaries for the free exchange of ideas - at least the ideas held by the people who sit at the front of the lecture halls.

Whatever shortcomings it may have regarding nonconformist thinking, however, academia is at least a place where views are regularly exposed for the world’s consideration. “Publish or perish,” as they say.

But not always.

At the beginning of a recent panel discussion, which featured a group of investment professionals including the prominent hedge fund manager Paul Tudor Jones II, the dean of the University of Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce, Carl P. Zeithaml, addressed the audience: “We must prohibit any discussion or description of the event in print or video, through electronic media or through Internet-based technologies including Web sites, blogs or social media, such as Twitter or Facebook.”

The prohibition on “discussion or description of the event” was, he explained, necessary to encourage “open and candid discussion.”

Strangely, despite Zeithaml’s ground rules, the school itself set up a camera, which captured Jones making some controversial remarks about the potential for women with children to succeed in the world of high-stakes macro trading. Because the University of Virginia is a public institution, it is subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and The Washington Post used the law to obtain and post the footage from the panel, presumably after audience members alerted the paper that it might find something interesting.

“You will never see as many great women investors or traders as men - period, end of story,” Jones said when asked, during a question and answer session, what it would take to get more women and minorities into high-level investing positions. The reason, he said, is that motherhood is simply too great of a distraction. He also said that traders going through a divorce could expect to see their earnings drop as a result of a similar loss of focus on their work.

The comments spread quickly through social media and sparked an engaging discussion on balancing family life with career, especially in finance. A female McIntire graduate, who is also a hedge fund professional, wrote an open letter to the women of the student body encouraging them not to preemptively opt out of a career in finance based on Jones’ opinion that motherhood and hedge fund management are incompatible.

Jones has since expressed regret that his comments may have been seen as supporting “limiting opportunity for any segment of society, particularly women.” He also apologized to those whom he offended. However, Jones has also reiterated his key point that macro traders are “on-call 24/7” and that “life events, such as birth, divorce, death of a loved one and other emotional highs and lows are obstacles to success in this specific field of finance.” In his follow-up statement, he said that these obstacles “pass with time;” in the panel, he stressed the importance of focus during the specific age window of 24 to 29 and suggested that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for a trader to make up for any professional development missed during that time.

Jones’ remarks were, presumably, the sort of “open and candid discussion” Zeithaml had hoped for. But, by and large, the discussion that has followed has also been open and candid, with the added benefits of unfolding over a longer period of time, with more voices and more time for people to consider whether Jones’ view has any merit. If every audience member had followed the dean’s rules, that larger conversation could never have occurred, and those of us who were not at the symposium could not have benefited from the discussion of remarks made in a public setting at that public institution.

I think Jones, who has stood by his central point through the recent controversy, would have responded just as candidly to the question that triggered his original comment without the (ultimately false) assurance that nobody outside the room would ever hear what he said. Jones is an extremely wealthy, extremely successful professional trader. He really does not have to worry about what anyone outside his intimate circle thinks of his opinions.

The idea that secrecy is a prerequisite to open discussion is a strange one. There are, of course, certain scenarios where public officials must speak on the condition of anonymity. White House officials, for example, commonly hold “background briefings,” at which they outline policy to members of the press while requiring that the source be described solely as “senior administration officials.” They claim that this provides an important way of disseminating information without placing undue focus on specific individuals or any slips of the tongue that they might make.

While I would prefer to see anonymous background briefings fade into the past, at least there is some logic to anonymity when an individual speaks while representing a larger entity, such as the White House, and the attendees are members of a small professional group who have agreed to the terms in advance. Jones, however, gave his own opinions, based on his personal experiences, and did so in a public forum. There was no reason for him not to expect to see his words in print, next to his name.

Particularly in the era of the Internet, it is naive to believe that comments made publicly in one setting can be limited to that particular context. Any individual in the audience at a lecture, political fundraising event or concert could decide to become an impromptu journalist. Swearing each attendee to secrecy is both impractical and an undue imposition on their ability to express their thoughts about what they see or hear. Convening allegedly secret symposiums is no way to promote open discourse.

If Zeithaml and his peers want to promote more “open and candid discussion,” especially in academia, I suggest they try to do it by fostering more speech, not less. College faculty members need to develop a greater tolerance for viewpoints different from their own. The way to do this is by meeting comments such as Jones’ with reasoned responses made in the open, rather than acting as if certain types of speech must be kept under quarantine.

I strongly doubt Jones’ claim that women cannot simultaneously be mothers and hedge fund traders, especially if they have husbands - or wives - who are willing to share childcare duties. Then again, I never did the kind of big-time trading Jones did. If you want to know what it takes, Jones’ view probably ought to carry more weight than mine.

I’m glad some of the students who were in the audience that day were willing to share their notes.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s recently updated book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us,” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business.” Larry was also among the authors of the firm’s book The High Achiever’s Guide To Wealth.

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