This month, the Pathways Commission, a new commission on accounting higher education, will hold its first formal meeting to begin charting “a national higher education strategy for the next generation of accountants.” This commission is a joint effort of the American Accounting Association (AAA) and the AICPA.
The commission is an outgrowth of the U.S. Treasury Advisory Committee on the Auditing Profession (ACAP) (see sidebar, “ACAP’s Human Capital Recommendations,” below).
In August 2010, the commission was constituted with six members and will be chaired by Bruce Behn, the Ergen Professor of Business and professor of accounting at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville. Behn has served in leadership positions in the AICPA, AAA and Federation of Schools of Accountancy. The Pathways Commission is structured using a “supply chain” approach by including leaders from all segments of the supply and demand side of accounting education and practice. It also seeks broad input, including from comments and discussion that may be posted on its website at pathwayscommission.org.
Recently, the JofA asked Behn to relate his thoughts and impressions about the commission and some of the issues and opportunities it plans to address.
JofA: The Pathways Commission is asked to study a “possible future structure for education in the accounting profession.” What is its structure now?
Behn: There is really not one structure because of many factors. For example, states have their own regulators; colleges and universities have different missions and different graduation requirements; and students from these schools go into lots of different kinds of accounting roles. So there is a lot of variability in how students define themselves as accounting professionals.
JofA: So one good first step would be just to get a little uniformity?
Behn: Not uniformity, but a better understanding, development and communication of different potential pathways to the accounting profession. By analogy, in the medical profession, there have to be different pathways for an individual to become a neurosurgeon, as opposed to a primary care physician. In the same way, there could be different pathways to becoming a public company auditor versus a controller, versus somebody who works in government.
JofA: And you formed what you call your three “supply chain” groups. What is their purpose?
Behn: There are many organizations and individuals that have touch points along the accounting education pathway, but seldom do all these parties get together to tackle the tough issues that affect all parties up and down the supply and demand side of accounting. The supply chain approach is our way to facilitate this interaction. What was important is engaging the broadest group of stakeholders in the accounting supply chain to tackle issues that cut across functional boundaries. One supply chain addresses K–14 education; one considers college/university pathways; and one focuses on regulation, employers and other stakeholders. The K–14 supply chain is important because we need to ensure there are enough high-caliber students coming into the accounting profession at even younger stages, whether it’s grade school or high school. In the second supply chain there are undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate representatives and organizations engaged in the college and university communities. I would characterize the third supply chain as representing employers, regulators and other stakeholders. We tried to be as inclusive as possible in these supply chains, and I would probably have preferred to have 30 or 100 individuals in each supply chain if we could have managed that, but because of logistics and costs, you have to have some kind of number for which you can manage the work flow [each is 11 members, with two commissioner liaisons]. To be inclusive for organizations and individuals to allow everyone to add their voices to the process, we have created an interactive website where all interested parties can post materials, questions and opinions and discuss Pathways Commission activities, documents and reports.
JofA: You have your first formal meeting planned for October. And then what happens?
Behn: Our goal is to identify significant issues and opportunities that we need to work on. Soon afterward, the meeting notes about initial supply chain group discussions will be posted at pathwayscommission.org. If the education and practice communities think we’ve missed something, they will have more than ample opportunity to respond. We’ll also have an open public meeting in February 2011. Then the goal is to create a final report by November 2011.
JofA: What sorts of recommendations do you personally favor? In the Treasury Advisory Committee’s final report, I noticed one of their recommendations was to “raise the number of professionally qualified faculty,” for example.
Behn: I can’t answer that, because we haven’t had our first meeting yet. But I can say that to have a good academic community, you need folks from different backgrounds. I worked for a number of years before I went into academics, and I think the ADS [Accounting Doctoral Scholars] Program [administered by the AICPA Foundation and funded by more than 70 firms and 40 state CPA societies] and the Bridge Program [administered by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business] are great. But everybody has a different perspective. Even when we think we’re doing good things, it’s not broad enough for other folks. To compare us again to the medical profession, it’s imperative that researchers and practitioners in that field work together to solve medical issues. In our discipline, the research and practice sides of things can sometimes seem disconnected.
JofA: A number of the recommendations from the Treasury committee’s final report concerned representation and retention of minorities. What kind of efforts might you seek to make greater progress there?
Behn: Again, we have not met yet, but this will be part of the commission’s deliberations, because we believe it is important to be inclusive in whatever way you can, and it is part of the Treasury’s recommendations. Our supply chains include, for example, representatives from ALPFA [Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting] and NABA [National Association of Black Accountants] and educators and others involved with this issue. I don’t know what the recommendations will be, but the bottom line is, 20 years from now, we as an accounting profession can’t look the same. If we’re going to be successful, we’ve got to have a diverse profession, because our companies and organizations are diverse. And I’m sure that anything we can do to facilitate that will be addressed by the commission and the supply chains.
JofA: What would be your hopes for this commission?
Behn: If all we do is get this broadly representative group of people to talk at the same table about the same issues and opportunities, that’s actually getting over a hurdle. The best-case scenario is we have a structure in place so that this momentum can continue, because our profession and its needs are going to continue to change. After the first stage, there are plans for a second stage that would operationalize the recommendations from stage one. But I think just having all the different stakeholders represented in the supply chains is really going to be a big contribution to this entire process.
JofA: Although the Treasury committee’s charge was to examine the sustainability of the profession, however that’s defined, the underlying issue was whether it goes on in a way that’s responsible to the public interest. How can universities teach this?
Behn: I would love for our work to enhance the profession, not just sustain it. Our profession offers many great careers, and a lot of times we don’t articulate that to high schoolers and even our college undergraduates as well as we might. It’s really enhancing our overall profession’s image. Everybody’s working on this kind of independently, but I think if together we have a more clear and compelling story about the pathways to the accounting profession and start telling people this, especially at the high school and maybe grade school level, we will have more opportunities to attract high-potential candidates into our profession.
I’ve gotten to talk to a lot of different people throughout this process, and one was Norm Augustine, the former CEO of Lockheed Martin. He chaired the committee that produced the Gathering Storm report [Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future]. The executive summary is on the Pathways website. It examined how the quality of life in the United States could be threatened by lack of innovation, and thus job creation, resulting from falling behind in math and sciences compared to the world, and gave recommendations. Norm said, “You actually have a better argument than we did for doing this type of work, because accounting is critical to the quality of life in the United States. Without your accounting information, none of these systems would work.” It was kind of nice hearing that from him.
Paul Bonner is a JofA senior editor. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-4434.