No matter which prison holds former Refco Inc. Chief Executive Officer Phillip Bennett during his 16-year sentence, chances are he'll be the only inmate with a master's degree from Cambridge University in England.
Formerly head of the once-biggest independent U.S. futures broker, Bennett was ordered in U.S. District Court in New York to forfeit $2.4 billion in assets after pleading guilty to bank fraud and money laundering.
Bennett, 60, joins at least a dozen other wealthy corporate executives with degrees from elite institutions such as Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School imprisoned for white-collar crimes this decade.
Exceptional intelligence, self-confidence and feeling special, common traits among those educated at such schools, can turn into deviousness, arrogance and entitlement, said Tom Donaldson, professor of ethics and law at Wharton in Philadelphia.
"If the devil exists, he no doubt has a high IQ and an Ivy League degree,'' Donaldson said. "It's clear that having an educational pedigree is no prophylactic against greed and bad behavior.''
Imprisoned executives with Ivy League degrees include Jeffrey Skilling, 54, former CEO of Enron Corp. (Harvard Business School); Timothy Rigas, 52, former chief financial officer of Adelphia Communications Corp. (Wharton), and William Sorin, 59, former general counsel of Comverse Technology Inc. (Harvard Law School).
Some convicted executives have multiple degrees. Conrad Black, former CEO of Hollinger International Inc., now serving a 6 1/2-year sentence for stealing $6.1 million from the company, has two bachelor's degrees from Carleton University, a master's degree from McGill University and a law degree from Laval University, all in Canada.
"There is a correlation between going to an elite school and ending up as a CEO,'' said Edwin Hartman, professor of business ethics at New York University's Stern School of Business. "Look at the list of the heads of the 400 elite companies. They certainly didn't go to no-name state schools.''
A top-level education may also cultivate arrogance, said Maurice Schweitzer, who teaches information management at Wharton.
Executive wrongdoing is more about character flaws than alma mater, said Andrew Weissmann, who led the Justice Department task force that investigated the collapse of Enron. "Just because you went to a good school doesn't mean you have a good moral compass,'' he said.