A Second Chance
Maurice Foley '82
In the fall of 1978, I walked around the campus wearing green army fatigues, shoulder holster, green bandana headscarf, dark sunglasses, and a saunter imbued with an I-wish-you-would-say-something-out-of-line threat. Primed for the streets of Oakland or Philly, I was a little "hard" for the manicured, idyllic, and-to my way of thinking-preppy confines of Swarthmore College. Before my arrival, I had read only one book cover to cover, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, by Alex Haley. Though extremely confident in my ability, I was not academically, mentally, or spiritually prepared for what I was about to face: an intense, rigorous academic experience in a somewhat surreal-and certainly foreign-setting.
From the outset, my study habits were poor, and, for the first time, I experienced academic difficulties. Undaunted, I proceeded to endear myself to my fellow students. I started by evicting my roommate for the unpardonable trespass of playing my stereo. During Thanksgiving break, I stole a stereo from a classmate who lived down the hall. In early December, Swarthmore's security officers caught me stealing calculators from the science library. After a feeble attempt to lie my way out of this predicament, I was urged by my older brother to "tell the whole truth and deal with the consequences." I did. First, I told school officials about the transgressions and returned many of the stolen articles. Then I had a difficult conversation with the student whose stereo I had stolen. Finally, I had a hearing before the Student Judicial Council. On Dec. 16, I received the following letter:
I regret to inform you that the Committee has decided that the offenses committed by you warrant a one-semester non-notational suspension. It is hoped that the time away from Swarthmore will allow you to evaluate your actions and consider your commitments to Swarthmore. The Committee hopes that you will return in the fall better able to handle the pressures here and by extension better able to control your actions.
I certainly did not know that my next appearance in a judicial setting would be 17 years later, and I would be the judge. Yet there were many lessons to be learned before I reached that point.
After returning to Swarthmore, I met two people who changed my life. In the fall of 1979, I took African American history with Professor Kathryn Morgan. I remember her entrance on the first day of class-the African garb, short Afro, and large dangling earrings. Professor Morgan was a bona fide soul sista-earthy, militant, fiery, uncompromising, and direct. Radical yet reasoned. Oscillating between a cool, calm, aloof philosopher and an in-your-face "Burn, baby, burn" crusader, she made it clear to the students that it was not appropriate to open your mouth unless you had something substantive to say-leave your rhetoric in a receptacle outside the door. I knew I was going to learn a lot from her, and I did.
After I had taken four of her classes, we developed a new seminar: Special Topics in Black Studies. It comprised one student from each of seven areas of study political science, economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, biology, and history. Each student taught a session explaining how to foster African American social and economic advancement by modifying and employing traditional theories in his or her academic discipline. Professor Morgan's passion for reforming "the system" infused in me a passion for political, economic, and tax matters relevant to African Americans. As a result, during the course of my career in the legislative realm, I particularly enjoyed developing expertise and designing legislation relating to the earned-income tax credit, low-income housing credit, empowerment zones, and other provisions that would significantly affect African Americans.
In the fall of 1980, I met another professor who changed my life and today is one of my closest friends: Richard Rubin. Professor Rubin, like Professor Morgan, was brutally honest with me. During an office visit, he disclosed that he had been a successful businessman before joining academia. I told him that I had my sights set on achieving success in the business world and wanted to know what I needed to do to prepare myself. He was practical, earnest, and wise. He first told me I had to improve my writing skills. Get rid of all the "hearts and flowers"-the fluff-and get to the point. He destroyed my papers and then performed the laborious task of teaching me how to write. His advice and instructions served me well, for I would later be called on to draft complex tax regulations and tax legislation; memos for the secretary of the treasury, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and president of the United States; and U.S. Tax Court opinions. There was certainly no room for hearts and flowers.
He then told me that I needed to be "bilingual" and improve my speaking skills in order to succeed in a business world controlled predominantly by whites. In essence, I needed to be more polished. Although I had been a successful debater and extemporaneous speaker in high school, I understood what he was telling me. In fact, for most of my childhood, I had had a severe stuttering problem, which I worked on and eventually overcame. Additional fine-tuning of my speech would not be a problem. That summer, I took a public-speaking course.
Finally, he told me that my heart had to change and I had to trust people. I was raised in a military family that moved every couple of years. We lived in obscure places such as Utah and North Dakota. I did not know my aunts, uncles, cousins, or even my grandparents. I made and broke relationships easily and indiscriminately. I was quite comfortable in solitude. In essence, I grew up loving and caring about only my parents, my four siblings, and myself. I had expanded that inner circle to include Cassandra Green '79. (She was the one wise decision mixed in with the many errors of judgment during my first semester. I pursued Cassandra, a Swarthmore senior, with great fervor. She became my best friend and, ultimately, my wife and the loving mother of our three children.) But Professor Rubin pushed me to expand it further-much further. His credo was and continues to be:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am only for myself, what am I?
If not now, when?
-Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), 1:14, Hillel
I had no problem being "for myself," but the rest of the quote was a problem. Professor Rubin, however, set the perfect example for why it is important not to be "for myself" and not to delay in helping others. A list of all the insights, advice, and gifts he has given me, my family, and other students might lead you to question his sanity; so, for the purposes of this essay, I will add only that he taught the Macroeconomic Policy course that convinced me to pursue a career in tax law, made sure that I took the requisite prep courses for the LSAT and GMAT, and has provided me with advice regarding all my career decisions.
When I made a mistake at Swarthmore, I did not receive what I deserved. Instead, by God's grace, I received what I did not deserve. I could have been expelled or confronted with criminal charges. Yet I was given a second chance. This experience indelibly seared into my conscience the importance of honesty and integrity, and of directly confronting the consequences of mistakes.
At Swarthmore, I was blessed with two amazing professors and friends who taught me life lessons that guided my personal and professional life. Indeed, today there is a little bit of Rubin and Morgan in every judicial opinion I write. Professor Rubin forged the template long ago with his admonitions to be practical and excise the "hearts and flowers." My opinions also reflect the resolute and direct approach of Professor Morgan. I pray that my legacy, like theirs, will be one of teaching, mentoring, and self-sacrifice for the benefit of others.
Maurice Foley, a judge on the U.S. Tax Court since 1995, previously served as counsel to the Department of Treasury and the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance.