August 2002

Reviving the Profession

By Robert H. Colson

In May 2001, my thoughts on having chosen the CPA profession ran in this space under the title, “If I could start again, I’d still be an accountant.” Phil Jagolinzer, a professor at the University of Southern Maine, had challenged me to attack this theme in a keynote address at the Northeastern American Accounting Association’s annual conference. His inspiration was the low morale among accounting professors because of declining enrollments and the Albrecht and Sack report’s (CPA Journal March 2001) stunning finding that few CPAs would choose a career in accounting again. Even fewer would choose an accounting undergraduate education again.

In that column, I challenged readers to tell us whether and why they “would do it again.” The submissions we’ve received cover the spectrum of accounting practitioners and educators, and we look forward to running more of these personal reflections.

The most consistent theme running through these submissions is the personal touch. Not one of the essayists spoke of choosing accounting because of a marketing campaign. Rather, their choice was motivated by personal contact with an adult role model—a parent, relative, high school teacher, neighbor, counselor, college professor, sibling, friend, or an employer—who suggested accounting as a career.

A distinguishing characteristic of individuals in any profession is their willingness to attract others to the profession itself rather than to the organizations that carry out its work. Do you know any doctors who chose medicine because they wanted to work at a specific hospital or research lab? How many attorneys chose law because they wanted to work at a particular law firm? Most professionals choose their occupation because they were influenced by a role model from that profession, or because someone they respected showed that profession to be a worthy pursuit. Generally, the apprentice chooses the trade or profession first. The initial choice of employer comes later, and even that is often influenced by that initial mentor.

The events surrounding the collapse of Andersen and the financial reporting abuses at some of the country’s largest public companies have temporarily eclipsed concerns about attracting young people to accountancy. But these issues are related because both underscore enduring problems that any profession attempting to regenerate itself during times of change is going to face.

Current events have created grave concerns about the state of the profession’s infrastructure. This vast area encompasses accounting principles and auditing standards, the will to self-regulate the inherent conflicts of interest, the roles of national and state CPA organizations, tensions between professional and business goals, and the ability of federal and state governments to meaningfully regulate. Many CPAs’ reactions to these events are complex, with shades of outrage, shame, blame, despair, and confusion. The many phone messages I received when the news broke on WorldCom’s accounting misstatements are best summarized by one caller’s statement: “This is the last straw. I am so ashamed and embarrassed that I turned my CPA certificate to the wall. We have to do something.”

He’s right. We do need to do something. But he’s also wrong: We need to do many things if we’re intent on reviving our profession, but most importantly, individuals in the profession need to feel fundamentally attached to it rather than passing through it for something better or only tangentially related to it.

The CPA Journal would like to open this page for short personal comments from guest columnists, and the News & Views section upfront for longer opinion pieces about the state of the profession. Discussion, analysis, and discourse are important prerequisites to moving ahead. The editors would like to hear about any perceptions, reactions, and experiences that have helped personalize the issues that our profession currently faces. If you have proposed solutions, that’s great, but not necessary. Sometimes, though, a simple statement of the problem as seen by one person helps others sort out the issues for themselves and builds a better professional.

The types of issues we now face are not manageable in the long term through additional standards, principles, regulation, and legislation. Rather, they involve whatever fundamental value the CPA profession contributes to our society, and the challenges of managing the conflicts of interest inherent in any worthwhile human endeavor. Although we may need dramatic short-term changes in how public companies’ financial reporting is conducted in order to restore trust in the capital market system, such quick fixes will probably be oriented toward appearance rather than substance. The substantial issues will endure, and they involve fundamentals such as CPAs’ knowledge and competence in the services they offer and their ethical conduct while providing those services.

No profession is built without a continuous discourse on its members’ ethical responsibilities as the economic environment changes. Our profession has invested enormous resources in creating ethical rules that deal mostly with the appearance of independence. We have not devoted enough energy to developing our facilities to recognize, debate, and reach personal conclusions about conflicts of interest. We run a grave risk of continuing to lose the public’s confidence if individual accounting professionals cannot understand conflicts of interest when they arise and act responsibly.

We need to start. Please send your thoughts and ideas to with “Reviving the Profession” in the subject line.

Robert H. Colson, PhD, CPA
The CPA Journal

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The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.

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