Teaching for the Accounting Profession: CPAs and PhDs

By Myrna L. Fischman

JUNE 2007 - Accounting professors have the awesome responsibility of preparing their students to be the best possible accounting professionals, no matter where in the wide world of opportunity these students will find themselves. Academia has long debated whether accounting should be taught by PhDs or CPAs. Accounting is a practical profession. The preponderance of PhDs do not have practical experience, but they do have textbook knowledge. The practical aspects of the profession that a student may encounter need to be taught by the practicing CPA.

Our students need to be prepared to handle all phases of the accounting profession. For example, they may be faced with the challenge of clients with complex transactions. Conversely, the challenge may be clients with many simple transactions. They may have clients who need guidance from their CPA, or who have complex tax, pension, or estate planning needs. Our students may find themselves with clients who are small manufacturers or who are always planning new takeovers. They may be hired by firms with unyielding management structures, or with minimal supervision and insufficient staffing, or management structures with which they are unfamiliar. Alternatively, our students may open their own firms.

Professors have the responsibility to prepare their students to have the rudimentary tools to meet each of the above situations, which include manufacturing, financial accounting, taxation, and professional ethics. Professors need to help students to “learn how to learn.”

With the understanding that a student’s first position in all probability will be with a public CPA firm, any accountant may eventually receive offers from corporations. If a CPA accepts such an offer, the public accountant is now a corporate accountant. If we have performed our job well, all the CPA’s professional training will transfer to the corporate world: ethical behavior, internal controls, delegating skills, and supervisory skills.

Based upon the various potential career paths open to students of accounting, if college professors were to be asked which courses they would eliminate, how could they respond? Not knowing what the future may hold for our students, how could we eliminate financial accounting, accounting theory, managerial accounting, or advanced accounting with consolidations? Could we eliminate taxation, auditing, accounting information systems, internal auditing, or government accounting? Accounting professors need to educate for the general practitioner. Specialization comes later.

The responsibilities of accounting professors do not end with preparing students to be excellent practitioners. They have the additional responsibility of successfully preparing students to pass the CPA examination. Professors cannot and should not teach only so students can pass the CPA exam or become excellent practitioners. Teachers cannot avoid the issue either. The accounting professor’s responsibility is to prepare students both for the exam and for practice thereafter.

The question remains: Who should this accounting professor be? Professors bring their own life experiences and training into their classrooms. A balance needs to be reached in the classroom. As depth of knowledge of the accounting profession is needed when teaching accounting, the issue need not be practitioner versus researcher. Richard Schmalensee, dean of the MIT Sloan School of Management, stated: “Part of the answer is for business students to learn more about business directly from practitioners” (BusinessWeek, November 27, 2006). The answer can and perhaps should be CPA + PhD, or CPA + Master’s. As in the medical profession, continued practice in the discipline being taught should be required.

Such a solution would permit CPA professionals to control their profession. Professors could continue to perform research, write, and develop new ideas. Learning from both practitioners and teachers will prepare students appropriately for the professional practice of accounting. In addition, CPAs would take their rightful place alongside other respected licensed professions such as medicine and law, both of which require that their licensed professionals teach the courses required by their practicing professions.

Myrna L. Fischman, PhD, CPA, is the chair of the department of accounting, taxation, and law at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus, Brooklyn, N.Y. She is a member of the NYSSCPA’s Board of Directors, Higher Education Committee, and Banking Committee.