What does a Professor of Accounting do?

by Carol A Adams

Main points:

  • The role of accounting academics in driving change in practice and policy has lacked visibility
  • Academics have critical thinking skills of value to the profession, business and policy makers

When people ask me what I do for a living, I wonder what they imagine it involves.  Do they think of Professors as people who don’t/can’t practice and accountants as people who do tax returns and read balance sheets?  Professors are change agents in their fields and Professors of Accounting have highlighted issues and signalled inevitable developments in accounting and accountability.  But misconceptions might explain the derisory comments I’ve heard over the years about the value accounting academics can bring to real world business situations, professional issues and policy development.

Most Professors of Accounting that I know have professional accounting qualifications and have worked as accountants and auditors.  Some have been in senior management roles, either within universities or prior to becoming academics, and most have led teams and managed large projects.  A number serve on Boards or external committees or advisory groups.

My colleagues have a deep understanding of the influences of accounting, reporting and governance practices on business and society and vice versa.  Their PhD and research training bring rigour and credibility to their research findings.

Many engage with practice and practitioners and a few seek to inform policy and engage with regulators.  Professors supervise PhD students, prepare and deliver lectures and seminars; it’s essential they keep up with developments in their field.  Being professionally trained and experienced at planning their time and managing staff in their former roles, accounting academics, also tend to get involved in course development and university administration. Some professors take on management and leadership roles within universities, success at which requires an adeptness in stakeholder consultation and effective communication.

Academic accounting disciplines represent the breadth of accounting practice (management accounting, financial accounting, public sector accounting and so on), but also go beyond current professional training and practice to address future skills needs.  For example, accounting researchers were talking about the interconnectedness of accounting with other business functions and society long before the term ‘integrated thinking’ was coined.  Research and teaching on social, environmental and behavioural issues has been conducted by accounting academics for decades.  Looking beyond the numbers and accountability for broader aspects of a business is at last growing in popularity. But when I took my first university post in the 1980s, there seemed to be no other place for a female accountant concerned with social justice and environmental sustainability to go.

A broader sense of accountability is taught in many mainstream university accounting courses. Being a Professor of Accounting is not just about teaching how to generate financial numbers and accounting techniques.   It is about understanding context, implications, consequences and broader accountability, not just balancing a budget.

Outside the ivory towers in 2018

The opportunities to make real impact, not only on students, but on practice and policy are rewarding.  Here are a few examples from 2018.

This year I gave evidence to the Australian Senate Inquiry on how the Australian Government and businesses can help achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and made submissions to five consultations/inquiries on corporate reporting and governance.  I’ve guided investors in reporting particularly on social impact and the SDGs. I attended a workshop in Scotland with representatives from business, civil society and investors where we discussed how to enhance business and investor responses to the SDGs and provided input to the Support the Goals initiative. In September I delivered the keynote address to the Japan Forum of Business and Society on ‘Strategy and reporting on societal impact and the SDGs’.

Also, in September, AdvanceHE launched a report I wrote on how universities create value for students, staff and broader society. The value of universities is much more than traditional education provision; it’s in creating community leaders and providing leadership on global challenges such as those addressed by the SDGs. This value can be expressed alongside financial information in annual reports to give a full picture of what a university is offering to the community it serves.

Committee work with professional bodies, a task force and civil society organisations has provided an opportunity to influence.  I was honoured to chair the Stakeholder Council of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).  The Stakeholder Council is an amazing collection of sustainability experts from a variety of interested constituencies from around the world who provide the GRI Board with strategic recommendations and input to the work of the GRI’s Global Sustainability Standards Board (GSSB).

These activities in turn inform further research and teaching.

A final (for now) word

So, like many of my colleagues, I do/can practice accounting as you might know it.  I could, but don’t, do tax returns.  I can and do read financial statements.  But there is much more (accounting) information that business leaders and communities need to have access to.  This will be increasingly important and the future generation of accountants we’re helping to shape will need to be able to provide it.

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  1. Nancy Kamp-Roelands says:

    Well written Carol. As recently being appointed as professor non-financial information, integrated reporting and assurance at the University of Groningen I can only echo whatever you note. I combine my professorship with my work as associate partner at EY and work within relevant organizations in the area of reporting and assurance. The interactions with practice and standardsetting are relevant to drive change, align our profession to societal needs and educate accountants on corporate reporting and assurance in its broadest sense.

  2. Stephen B. Salter says:

    Well thought Carol. It’s something my colleagues and I wrestle with. In the current US economy, we have to justify anything beyond preparing the students to pass the CPA.

    • Shame. I hope that the US CPA exams are at least addressing the broader context in which accountants operate including sources of value and risk not recognised in financial statements eg climate change risk.

  3. Well written Carol. This is definitively something that needs to be read by PhD students (why not post it only on the EAA-ARC?). Professor of accounting combines so many different facets that all come together under the willingness to be a change-maker and make impact. Everything we do is interconnected. Your work on engagement is a good example of that – and more need to follow your path.

  4. Hongtao Shen says:

    Quite impressive Carol. My experience and observation shows that accounting academics in China have played active role in policy making and industry practice. For example, Accounting Standard Committee in China accepted many suggestions on carbon accounting from colleagues of our research team on environmental accounting.

  5. What a truly well written portrayal of a Professor of Accounting do. Whilst most of our graduated MBAs may be aware of our profession’s wide ranging roles/contributions in the business arena, like most of our colleagues’ comments on this page, more visibility is needed; perhaps, also incorporated in all accounting text books and websites. Thanks Carol.

  6. I know of too few accounting professors that have the courage to speak their mind freely (for various reasons). As such, whilst I agree with the principle that university professors should be change-makers, this is hardly the reality.

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