Mary Jo White on Surprises, Disappointment, Criticism During Her SEC Career

Former SEC Chair Mary Jo White opened up with students and faculty during Arizona Law visit

Lindsey Huang ('17)

Mary Jo White Securities and Exchange Commission ChairOn Monday, March 27, Mary Jo White spoke to a group of University of Arizona Law students and faculty about her career at the U.S. Securities Exchange Commission. Her visit was part of the Mundheim Speaker Series hosted by Professor Bob Mundheim.

White served as chair of the SEC for nearly four years before stepping down in January 2017. Prior to joining the SEC, White was the chair of Debevoise’s Litigation Department, and she has now returned to the firm. She is also the only woman to have served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, serving from 1993 to 2002.

In discussing her tenure at the SEC, White noted particular challenges that made policymaking difficult.

“The degree of partisanship was a surprise,” she said, recounting a fellow commissioner who “took marching orders” from the Republican Party and “started at ‘no’ on everything.” In her view, commissioners should be thinking only of the mission of the SEC, rather than having opinions dictated by Republicans or Democrats.

Compounding the difficulty of persuasion on a politicized commission is the Sunshine Act, which prevents more than two commissioners from meeting at one time. “I knew it was a restriction, but how bad that was, and how inefficient it was, and the game playing it supported was a surprise,” she reflected.

White considers her biggest disappointment to be not passing an SEC fiduciary rule.

“I was one vote, and could not gain the support to do it,” she said. “It’s an important rule. I can’t think of anything more important to investors.” White is not optimistic that it will be pursued by the next SEC.

She also addressed the criticism that came with the job, both as SEC chair and U.S. attorney.

“Some of it is politicized, some of it is legitimate, and some of it is absolutely baseless. You have to know that it comes with the territory. You have to know that no matter what it is, you listen to it because you may learn something—you want to be constructive about criticism. But at the end the day, you do what you think is the right thing, no matter what anybody does to you.”

When asked about her leadership philosophy, White emphasized that, “as a leader, you lead by example.” She added that she made sure not only to be interested in the work of the people she led, but also to show it. White also stressed, “You take the bullet for the agency, and you take the bullets for your staff. That, I think, is just critical.”

To the future attorneys in the room, she advised, “Don’t be afraid to change jobs.” White identifies her leaving a partnership at Debevoise to work in government as the stepping stone to her career as U.S. attorney and SEC chair. But, she warned, “It’s a mistake to take a job to get the next one.” Instead, she recommended, “When you take a job, take it for its sake.”

A longtime Yankees fan, White admitted that she would have left any of her positions to take one special job: Major League Baseball commissioner. “Why? To throw out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium,” she said. Indeed, White noted that the biggest highlight of her tenure at the SEC was throwing the first pitch at a Nationals vs. Mets game in 2016.