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Do academic traditions undermine teaching?

Is the academic community meeting the needs of the accounting profession? Will colleges and universities be ready to educate twenty-first century CPAs? Public practitioners may be alarmed at what they see when they look into the institutions that prepare future CPAs. Academics, however, are likely to believe colleges are doing a good job. Here a public practitioner and an accounting professor debate how well professors are preparing students for jobs in public or private practice.


A. MARVIN STRAIT, CPA, is chairman of the board of directors of Strait. Kushinsky and Company, P.C., a CPA firm with offices in Denver and Colorado Springs. He has held many leadership positions in the CPA profession, including chairman of the American Institute of CPAs board of directors. Strait is a member of the Accounting Education Change Commission and a member of the AICPA academic and career development executive committee. He is this year's recipient of the CPA Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession, the highest award the AICPA bestows.

My respect for the talent, ability and expertise of professionals in academia has been confirmed in every way. Higher education is composed of dedicated and committed professionals with a most unique creativity and drive. It is clear this fantastic resource of talent and skill is needed and has to be managed wisely and efficiently in order to meet the dramatic challenges and demands that our fast-changing world has placed upon higher education.

Sadly, it is apparent the present system is not ready for the future, nor meeting the needs of our society. Accounting education is in trouble. As the seminal study Future Accounting Education: Preparing for the Expanding Profession, the report of the blue ribbon committee of the American Accounting Association (the Bedford committee), described it: "Future accountants are not receiving the preparation they need to meet the increased demands of the expansive, more complex profession that is emerging." This article does not blame higher education for all the problems encountered by the profession in attracting the "brightest and the best." Most assuredly, compensation, career opportunities, characteristics of the work environment and public perceptions of accountants are also major factors in student career decisions.

An early experience on the Accounting Education Change Commission exemplifies the "shock treatment" I received. In a discussion about faculty incentives and rewards for curriculum development, course design and teaching, the point was made that faculty members at many institutions would be committing academic suicide to devote substantial time and effort to a major curriculum project. I thought such comments to be ludicrous. With the heavy demand and the short supply of such curriculums, I did not understand how there could possibly be a disincentive to meeting an important and sought-after need.

I gradually learned the truth: Professors undertaking major curriculum projects at most major universities do so at peril to their careers. In fact, many educators doubt their administrators even would recognize such efforts for tenure and promotion purposes. Even if they did, certainly a stigma would be attached to the faculty member. I have found that no one in higher education is at all surprised at this.

This, in my judgment, is a fundamental incongruity between what the public understands about higher education and what actually occurs. The public believes the primary mission is to educate students. Most assuredly, a significant portion of institutions' funding comes from tuition, which, of course, is for education. The taxpayers, at state schools, also fund teaching, yet the faculty reward system clearly demonstrates that teaching is not the priority in many institutions.

If education of new generations were higher education's top priority, colleges and universities would offer incentives, prestige and position to encourage teaching and promote curriculum development. Instead, I believe the following illustrates academia's priorities:

* Publish or perish. Apropos of priorities, note there is no such credo as "Teach or perish." Teachers are denied promotions and pay raises because they do not do enough writing, and teaching is deemed the low end of the career and prestige ladder.

* Faculty members received teacher of the year awards only to later learn their contracts were not to be renewed.

* The system has caused professors to treat teaching as "wasting time with students" because it uses up precious time that might otherwise be devoted to research.

* Young assistant professors trying to obtain tenure receive advice such as "Beware of students; they will destroy you."

* Introductory courses in accounting can routinely number 200 to 400 students and are often taught by inexperienced assistants with little knowledge or appreciation of the profession, who sometimes have difficulty communicating and, often, are preoccupied with their own studies. Note the introductory course in accounting is crucial in attracting the brightest students to the profession because it serves as the primary means of encouraging or discouraging students from an accounting career.

* Most PhD programs do not have a single teaching course. Incredible as it sounds, there is no formal training in teaching.

* The primary method of luring faculty from other institutions is to offer reduced teaching loads. The better professors'certainly the best paid--spend the least time in the classroom or in curriculum development. Consequently, the schools must hire more teachers and teaching assistants or make class sizes larger, or both, resulting in higher costs and lower quality.

In a study conducted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 71% of the professors surveyed said they would rather teach than do research. Accordingly, we can assume the impediment to better teaching is with the system, not with the educators. According to Cresap, the consulting firm, the most widely accepted measure of educational effectiveness is "time on task." The principle is simple indeed: Whatever you spend your time doing, that is what will get done! If teaching and curriculum development are the critical tasks, then critical amounts of time have to be spent on them. But, since teaching does not occupy the highest priority, the conclusion is obvious.

Change is universal; it will come to higher education. To be successful, colleges and universities will have to be much more sensitive to the marketplace and the changes in demographics; they will become market driven. In this time of scarce resources and greater demands upon everyone, those wishing to remain viable will have to efficiently and competently fulfill the needs of those they serve--the parents and students, employers, taxpayers, foundations and major contributors. That will signal the end of the producer-driven model that has dominated higher education for too long. Academe will have to set priorities for the use of its finite resources according to consumers' needs rather than producers'.

Academics justify higher education's emphasis on research by saying it "expands frontiers of knowledge." However, it is well documented that academia lags behind practice, and the gap is steadily widening. The paradox is that while research and publishing are given high priority, educational programs do not keep current with changes in accounting practice.

Research can be an integral and positive part of the educational system's effort to deliver a quality, state-of-the-art education but it cannot replace good teaching. Effective research should itself become a force for change and, as such, it should be considered more as the means to the end and not the end itself.

The argument that one must do research to be stimulating, current and relevant and to be analytical and learn how to think is not very convincing. Dedicated professionals have those characteristics, yet many have not published any research. Since there are, obviously, ways other than research and publishing to expand the frontiers of knowledge, it is surprising that educators take the most narrow, inflexible and unreasonable approach to the matter.

It strikes me as incongruous that the system's supporters write so vociferously about keeping the status quo when, at the same time, others are clamoring for and, in fact, demanding change. The education change commission itself is an example. The largest CPA firms would hardly be willing to spend $4 million on such a commission if the present system met their needs. I am unable to reconcile the position of professors justifying the present system with the abundance of opinion seeking change. I keep hoping those academics would peek outside and see what is obvious to everyone else--that significant change must occur.

The first time someone told me research was necessary because it was the only way teaching could be evaluated, I thought he was kidding. After all, if one wants teaching evaluated, one should, of course, evaluate teaching. The rationale that teaching is too difficult to evaluate doesn't hold. As to that contention, I simply suggest academe look outside to see very successful teacher evaluation methods that have been in use for years. Surely the evaluation of teachers is no more difficult than the evaluations CPA firms regularly perform for our highly talented, motivated and creative professional staffs. It's apparent the skills, abilities and talents that exist in a good inspirational teacher might be different from those of a competent researcher. It also is apparent that since teaching is academe's primary product, a proxy should not be used to evaluate it; we should be evaluating the real thing. The present research model, being the evaluator of teaching, must therefore bear the responsibility for the inadequate state of education as described by the Bedford committee and so many others.

Certainly, no commentary would be complete without including the positive signs of education reform. Calls for reform from within academe come from prominent university presidents such as Harold Shapiro of Princeton University, William Chace of Wesley University and Sheldon Hackney of the University of Pennsylvania. All have spoken of the need to place greater value on teaching. The Pease report from the University of Maryland noted that "undergraduate teaching is seriously undervalued by the present reward structure." The American Institute of CPAs spoke out with a position that includes the AECC Issues Statement no. 1, Objectives of Education for Accountants, urging priority for teaching. State societies are adopting action plans to encourage change. I encourage all members of the AICPA to join in such efforts. These leaders, along with many others, are uniform in their call for returning teaching to the priority. They are visionaries to be applauded for their insight and courage.

Change is difficult for people and organizations. It would appear, however, that change for tradition-bound institutions, insulated from the everyday economic pressures faced by the world at large, is particularly painful. But change is vital in order to remain a viable part of the world. In the words of Plato, "Change takes place no matter what deters it."


IVAN BULL, CPA, PhD, is professor of accountancy and finance at the University oflllinois-Urbana. The 1975-76 chairman of the American Institute of CPAs board of directors, he became managing partner of McGladrey, Hansen, Dunn & Company in 1966 and retired from practice in 1982 to enter the University of Illinois PhD program. Since graduation he has taught auditing and finance courses and published articles in scholarly journals as well as in the Journal of Accountancy. He was awarded the 1992 Undergraduate Excellence-in-Teaching Award by the Uofl business college.

It is alleged the current university system inadequately prepares accounting students for the future because it rewards faculty more highly for research than for teaching.

From my vantage point as an accounting professor for the last 6 years following some 35 years as a public practitioner--I believe accounting education is neither as deficient as some critics allege nor as effective as it might be. Some basic changes in course content and presentation are being considered under the leadership of the Accounting Education Change Commission. The AECC has made grants to various institutions to attempt to improve the methods of developing skills needed by professional accountants. That program to improve accounting education is promising; however, I would oppose radical surgery that applies only to accounting within the current general system.

What parts should be changed? Should research be reduced or eliminated? Why are the rewards for research higher than those for teaching? University research in general is under some criticism, evidenced in part by a series of articles published in June 1992 by the Chicago Tribune. But the study and teaching of accounting need to fit harmoniously within and among the other business disciplines.

The standards of performance for the members of the accounting faculty need to be reasonably consistent with performance standards for faculty members in the areas of finance, marketing, strategy and so on if accounting is to maintain its relative stature in the university system.

In order to understand accounting within the current system, one must understand the market for members of the accounting faculty. Our economy is market based, and the micromarket for accounting educators is no exception. That market places a premium on research over teaching, although the highest premium probably is placed on the capable accounting researcher who is also an effective accounting teacher. Researchers also receive recognition through publication. People respond to incentives; therefore, a high percentage of competent accounting educators tend to be attracted to research.

Some types of research probably justify a premium, but, in my opinion, the market does not adequately differentiate between types of research. For example, my biases suggest that mathematical analyses of hypothetical principal-agent situations have little potential value but that attempts to improve audit effectiveness have great potential value. Markets probably never perfectly reflect the "right" set of enduring values. Almost all markets can be criticized-for example, many observers agree that the market provides excessive compensation for entertainers and professional athletes.

The market demand for a member of the accounting faculty seems to be related to how many articles have been published in a few select scholarly journals (a category that does not include the practice-oriented Journal of Accountancy). In my opinion, those journals value rigor of the research (mathematical models plus complex statistical testing) over relevance of the subject matter to accountants in CPA firms or businesses. The editors of the journals and the reviewers of papers submitted for publication are competent professionals who possess high skill in manipulating mathematical models and performing and interpreting complex statistical tests. Consequently, such journals tend to be filled with papers that extend findings from prior research but that make only marginal contributions to the broad field of accounting.

My general set of values probably is biased by a public practitioner concern for solving client problems quickly and effectively. And as competition has increased in public accounting, the concern for providing prompt service and satisfactory solutions has similarly increased. I see students, as well as the important accounting issues, as the "clients" of higher education, and I feel some urgency to satisfy those clients. Therefore, I would prefer research to be driven by the importance of the subject matter rather than by what is most likely to be published in the proper journals. An urgent issue such as accountants' legal liability, to cite one example, does not fit nicely within established research patterns. Until someone defines a researchable liability question, identifies some observable variables and develops an overall research approach acceptable to the academic journals, that subject will remain relatively unexplored by accounting researchers.


Even this imperfect market for accounting educators results in benefits to society as well as to accounting. At least three different sets of benefits are provided, benefits that are not unimportant to the practice of accounting. System changes should not impair them.

Competent people are provided as entrants to the profession. The students who go through my auditing classes are intelligent to begin with; they have learned from courses in different disciplines, including accounting, and are further enriched through the study of auditing. Few, if any, believe they are "fully educated" at matriculation. Most are prepared to continue their educations throughout their professional lives. At least the top two-thirds of the accounting students are well equipped for their initial positions in public accounting or business and industry and have the backgrounds and attitudes for continuing professional and personal development. Contrary to popular opinion, most are reasonably articulate and can write acceptably well.

The system that provided college educations for large numbers of competent professional accountants in the past still functions well. What should not be overlooked is that the system that produces these bright students is dominated, at each leading private and public institution, by a research-oriented faculty.

A respected faculty attracts good students. Accounting faculty members are respected by scholars from other fields at most campuses. A number of accounting students transfer from other departments, and any lack of respect for the members of the accounting faculty would reduce that number of transfers. The better students might not consider accounting as a field of study-or a profession--in the absence of a general high regard for the accounting faculty. This respect comes, at least in part, from the rigor required for publication in the prestigious journals. Colleagues in other disciplines understand and respect research competence, not knowledge of accounting or performance in the classroom. Indeed, the research skills developed through PhD programs and subsequent research experience are impressive.

In addition to using technical statistical techniques, trained researchers can define topics that are amenable to research, recognize alternative hypotheses that may affect the phenomenon that is under study, identify the observable variables, understand threats to the validity of a research finding and critically evaluate research findings. These same skills are valuable when analyzing other social, political and economic issues.

Research findings make a difference. No one can reliably predict the value and reach of findings that eventually emerge from research projects. Accounting researchers' findings to date may not be especially impressive, but systematic and rigorous accounting research has occurred only in the last 30 years or so. Some of it affects us in significant ways: it has provided evidence about how some accounting information affects market prices of securities; it has assisted in the development and use of statistical sampling; it has provided evidence about the reliability of audit confirmations; and it has provided insight into audit decision making. Useful findings also have been published in managerial accounting and tax compliance areas.


Teaching is the function that is most visible to students and to employers. Unlike research, teaching does not have a device like the publication of a paper that provides a measure of achievement. Arguments that teaching should be rewarded more and research less may have some validity, but they oversimplify the actions needed to improve the effectiveness of the system. I believe accounting research should continue and its topics should not be restricted. However, premium pay for accounting research should be limited to need-driven subjects; researchers should accept a significant teaching commitment and all teachers should be flexible enough in the classroom to expose students to the best current practices and relevant research findings.

Market incentives need to be modified if such changes are to occur. For example, CPA firms and corporations should

* Limit research grants to topics they deem significant and provide critical evaluation of research findings.

* Provide access to hitherto confidential data.

* Provide direct rewards to effective teachers.

* Contribute to curriculum limprOVe-- ments.

* Provide some level of ongoing oversight of compensation practices in lieu of making blanket monetary awards.

* Participate more frequently in the classroom.

Students also should accept responsibility to improve the educational system. Graduates could provide feedback in some systematic way about the quality of their instruction after some years of work experience. For example, they might evaluate their education experience and suggest improvements in successive three- to fiveyear intervals during their careers.

Yes, accounting education can be improved. Compensating teaching more and research less might help in some cases but not in all. In some way compensation should be related to "client" satisfaction. Professional accountants and business executives should influence any change and should work together with accounting faculty to make a good higher educational system for accountants even better.
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Title Annotation:pro and con positions
Author:Bull, Ivan
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Sep 1, 1992
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