Courageous Conversations: Envisioning the World Differently
Date published: June 20, 2018
Note: This story has been adapted from Courageous Conversations: ‘The Challenge of the Future’.
In the summer of 2017, Professor of Global Business Ruth May engaged in a conversation triggered by a truth upon which she had stumbled, one that
kept nagging at her because no one else seemed to be acknowledging it. Finally, she
realized that she would have to be the one to bring it to light.
By Ruth May, Ph.D.
What inspired me was the thing that always drives important research in any field
— a burning question that compels you to search for answers.
In the summer of 2016, when cyber thieves hacked into the Democratic National Committee
(DNC) servers, I immediately suspected it was Russia because I’ve closely studied
their state security apparatus under the leadership of Vladimir Putin. Russia has
some of the best hackers in the world, and I was well aware of Putin’s loathing of
Hillary Clinton, which stems from her public criticism of him in late 2011 for manipulating
elections to guarantee that his party would win majority control before the start
of his third term as president. Over his (now four) presidential terms, Putin enacted
legislation and approved hostile corporate takeovers to punish both individuals and
media companies that publicly criticized him. Consequently, I fully expected Putin
to exact revenge on Clinton when she ran for president.
On Oct. 7, 2016, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the director of national
intelligence issued a joint statement confirming that the Russian government had directed
the cyberattacks on the DNC and disseminated thousands of stolen emails through WikiLeaks
and Guccifer 2.0.
After Donald Trump was elected, we learned that Russian intelligence operatives had
also hacked into our state voter registration rolls. They had purchased ads on Facebook
critical of Clinton and posed as Americans on Twitter and Facebook for the express
purpose of sowing discord in the U.S. political system. Russia’s interference was
an egregious attack on our democratic institutions that demanded a strong retaliatory
response. Republican leadership had always taken a hard line on Soviet/Russian aggression,
so I was sure it was only a matter of time until Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell took
the lead on making sure that Russia paid a heavy price for attacking our electoral
I waited. And I waited. And I waited. But nothing happened. No sharp criticism from
the top GOP leadership; no push for an aggressive investigation; no action. Why? Why? Why? This is the burning question that gnawed at me relentlessly and drove me to search
In early 2017, I was reading an article on a flight to New York about the soon-to-be-confirmed
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross. At the time, Ross was still co-chair of the
Bank of Cyprus in a country known for its money laundering, particularly Russian money
laundering. Buried deep in the article was a one-sentence mention of a $1 million
donation to Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership PAC on Oct. 25, 2016, by a Soviet
American billionaire, Len Blavatnik, whose Russian business partner, Viktor Vekselberg,
is one of Putin’s closest oligarchs. Vekselberg also happens to be the largest shareholder
in the Bank of Cyprus. My jaw dropped, my heart sank, and I began to feel nauseous.
There was no way that Mitch McConnell would have taken $1 million from a billionaire
oligarch with ties to the Kremlin only a week after American intelligence had confirmed
that Russia had meddled in our election. This had to be a mistake.
As soon as I got off the plane, I went straight to my hotel and got on the internet.
I searched the donor database of the Federal Election Commission, and my worst fears
were confirmed. Not only did McConnell take $1 million from Blavatnik, he took $2.5
million, and five other top GOP leaders had accepted donations totaling at least $3
million. I was sure this story would be reported by leading journalists and news outlets
at any moment, but it didn’t happen. By late summer of 2017, a few of my close friends
who were aware of what I’d discovered convinced me to stop waiting for someone else
to break the story and to write it myself. So I did.
I first reached out to the New York Times and the Washington Post, but got no response.
When I contacted the Dallas Morning News, they immediately responded, but they wanted
to see all my original sourcing. Once they realized my story was sound and factual,
they jumped on it.
I often tell my students how dangerous ideas that require you to engage in courageous
conversations will find you. You don’t have to go looking for them. They will come
right to your doorstep — in your company, in your church, in your classroom, or among
your colleagues in your university. When you get that sick feeling in your stomach;
when you would rather look the other way and keep silent; when you wish you didn’t
know what you know; you can be certain that you’re being faced with a truth that requires
a courageous conversation. My best advice to students is to be ready: Don’t be caught
off guard when truth lands at your doorstep, and don’t fail yourself by keeping silent,
no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel. You have to be willing to pay a price.
You might lose money, or a job, or even close friends in the process, but you won’t
lose yourself, and in the end, this is all that really matters.
The email responses I received from readers ran the gamut from one calling me “an
unhinged, liberal, snowflake fascist” to another telling me that I should win a Pulitzer
Prize for my reporting. Overall, the responses were positive and appreciative of the
detailed research I had done in knitting together a rather complex story. My UD colleagues
have been very supportive because, as Professor William Frank said in his King Fellow
address earlier this year, “Our teaching asks our students to envision themselves
and the world differently. We ask them to face the reality that a huge part of their
dignity as persons lies in their taking up their responsibility to listen and hear
and speak the truth.”
Read more Courageous Conversations from the Univeristy of Dallas.