Pay Your Dues and Get Abuse

Editorial Note: We are delighted to publish the following editorial by Paul F. Williams, the 2013 recipient of the Accounting Exemplar Award. The content is representative of the quality of the material that our colleagues will share at our 2019 Midyear Meeting in Orlando next week.

We hope to see you there! As always, when you read the comments of our columnists, please keep in mind that they only speak for themselves. They are not expressing the positions of the AAA or of any other party.

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Paul F. Williams is a Professor of Accounting at the Poole College of Management at North Carolina State University. Paul earned a BSF from West Virginia University, and MBA and Ph.D. degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joined the N.C. State faculty in 1985 after spending 1977 to 1985 at Florida State University. His research interests include accounting ethics, theory, and critical perspectives in accounting. His publications have appeared in Critical Perspectives on Accounting, Accounting, Organizations and Society, The Accounting Review, Contemporary Accounting Research, Journal of Business Ethics, Accounting and the Public Interest, Accounting Horizons (for which he won the best paper award for 2014), among many other journals. He has served as chairperson of the Public Interest Section of the American Accounting Association and as editor of Accounting and the Public Interest. He received the Public Interest Section’s Accounting Exemplar Award in 2013.

An astonishing event occurred at the 2016 Centennial meeting of the American Accounting Association (AAA). Even more astonishing is that the event went largely unremarked – it passed into history without disrupting the normal life of the North American accounting academy. That it might not be obvious to many of you who happen to read this blog to what I am referring proves my point. It also says something about AAA leadership and even more about AAA members. What it says about us as members of AAA is not encouraging. The event to which I refer is the Plenary devoted to the proposition that accounting will be a learned profession by the year 2036. That obviously means, at least in the opinion of the AAA leadership, accounting is not as yet a learned profession. The astonishing part of the public admission that accounting is as yet not a learned profession is that a characteristic of professions is that they are, by definition, learned. There cannot be an un-learned profession. Would the legal profession or the medical profession ever publicly admit they were not yet learned? A lot more to learn, yes, but not as yet learned? We should be embarrassed by such an admission since we have already had over a century to become learned.

That law or medicine (or any other academic discipline) would admit to such a thing is not likely. This is so for at least two reasons: 1. Something is being learned by someone in order to be admitted to the discipline and that something is substantial and continuously tested with some process for ascertaining the value of that something, and 2. There is not a monolithic organization that controls the process by which something enters the canon of what is permissible learning and what is not. Unlike medicine and law where research and practice are intertwined, the accounting academy in the U.S. is unusual in that the something to be learned to be admitted to the practice of accounting is determined largely by the rules promulgated by regulatory bodies (e.g. FASB, IRS, SEC, PCAOB, etc.). Perhaps only second to the military is any field so dominated by acronyms as accounting – acronyms that stand for organized bodies writing rules. The academy produces very little that actually makes its way into the canon which must be learned to be admitted to the profession (it does however contribute a great deal to what must be believed). Given the academy’s lengthy disinterest in the actual practice of accounting or the actual function of accounting in society, a promise to make accounting a learned profession seems a bit disingenuous.*

Law, medicine, or almost any other scholarly discipline is dispersed. There are vast numbers of people engaged in those disciplines without extensive centralized bureaucratic control. The natural sciences which provide us lay people with the template for the so-called scientific method could not function as sciences under bureaucratic control (the Lysenko affair in the old USSR is a case in point). Freedom to explore is essential to “progress.” There are no single organizations that legislate the structures or contents of scientific disciplines. For example, according to Hossenfelder (2018, p. 153) there were 2,000 physics PhDs awarded in the U.S. in 2012. Membership in the American Physical Society is 51,000 and the membership in the German Physical Society is 60,000. The sheer number and dispersion of people doing physics provides at least a freedom from control by anything other than the constrictions of the discipline itself, i.e., there are certain things you are no longer permitted to believe since they have been ruled out as believable by the discipline, not by an organization that controls the discipline through bureaucratic fiat.

Accounting, at least in North America, is, perhaps uniquely, a discipline where discipline is imposed by a bureaucratic organization. Accounting as an academic discipline is extraordinarily small compared to virtually all other academic disciplines. As the physics example illustrates fields in the natural sciences are populated by thousands of people. Accounting academics are relatively few in number and emerged as such largely in the U.S. Prior to the movement to make business disciplines more scientific, which began in the 1950s, accounting was taught mostly by people from practice and research in the sense of applying the methods of social science was non-existent. What shape a scientific approach to accounting would take was contested territory. The first quantitative applications in accounting appeared in the area of management. The developments in operations research that came about because of WWII appeared in TAR written by people like W.W. Cooper. Edwin Caplin was an early pioneer in introducing psychology to the investigation of accounting – thus was born behavioral accounting research. But the battle for hegemony over the accounting research agenda has clearly been won by the group that claims ownership of the financial reporting revolution. This is a clearly identifiable group of cohorts who matriculated at the University of Chicago between the mid-1960s and the early 1970s. Their significance is evidenced by the fact that the first four Seminal Contributions to the Accounting Literature Awards were given to work produced by that cohort. Apparently nothing of any intellectual value was produced prior to this group of persons steeped in neoclassical economics Friedman style and neoliberal ideology (Friedman was a founding member of the Mt. Pelerin Society).

Because there is a monolithic organization (the AAA) that manages the U.S. professoriate control of the AAA gives control of the agenda. The Seminal Contribution Awards** is a case in point. Perhaps some of you know how the selection process for that award works, but I don’t. Magically it is announced that one has been bestowed, but who does it or how it is done is a mystery. The AAA has a history of self-appointed elites as the laughable case of ARIA (Edwards, et al., 2013) illustrates. The doctoral consortium and the new faculty consortium were created as mechanisms for controlling the agenda. I attended one of the early doctoral consortia in 1974 and the entire program was dedicated to EMH and the methods of financial economics. A most vivid memory of that experience was the panel on which Sandy Burton was invited to speak only to be assaulted for his naïve understanding of the world by rebel soldiers in the financial reporting revolution. Some years later Gary Previts made an effort to introduce doctoral students to broader perspectives and had Tim Fogarty organize a faculty that included a Foucaldian, a leading accounting historian, a past editor of Issues in Accounting Education, an eclectic scholar, and an ethicist. Needless to say the reaction by the AAA’s director of research was one of extreme displeasure and none of those people were ever invited back.

The proclivity of the AAA toward bureaucratic control of the discipline is perhaps understandable. It is, after all, an organization populated mostly by people who lived in the culture of the accounting profession, a culture that places highest value on conformity. To me the latest outrage is the change in procedure for the selection of the best paper awards for Issues and Horizons. In spite of the changes in bylaws made a few years ago, there is no visible effect of those changes on the intellectual agenda of the AAA becoming more diverse. Horizons and Issues were created to devalue certain scholarship. TAR used to contain an Education section, but it was removed because rewarding someone with a TAR citation for writing about education was just not on. Comments were eliminated from TAR as well because a TAR byline could not be provided to someone who just wanted to comment, particularly if the comment cast skepticism on the content of TAR. Horizons was to be where articles that could be comprehended by practitioners were to be published, but it quickly became a paler version of TAR. Since articles in Issues and Horizons were not deemed serious scholarship the best paper awards for those two journals were left to a plebiscite of the members. The winners of the Horizons awards reflected the eclectic interests of the members. Papers dealing with education, systems, audit, history, epistemology, sociology of knowledge, and, yes, financial reporting were winners. This past year, however, the idea of letting the members choose from among all papers published in Horizons, was apparently deemed too risky. The AAA decided that might lead to the “wrong” kind of literature being noted as award winning. So the list of acceptable papers was pared to only five, all of which dealt with financial reporting. What little power the members have to shape what the AAA acknowledges as intellectually worthy has been taken away and without a whimper.

The people who gave us the financial reporting revolution and their successors have for some years now been expressing angst over the stagnant, banal nature of accounting research. As far back as 1991 a group of pre-eminent revolutionaries remarked on the lack of creativity in accounting research (Demski, et al. 1991). Judy Rayburn’s AAA presidency made central the issue of the lack of diversity in accounting research; she invited Anthony Hopwood (noted for Accounting from the Outside) to be her Presidential Speaker. Shyam Sunder made the theme of his presidency Imagining New Accountings and Greg Waymire pushed for Seeds of Innovation while proclaiming, “I believe our discipline is evolving towards irrelevance within the academy and the broader society with the ultimate result being intellectual irrelevance and eventually extinction” (Waymire, 2011, p. 3). But like the monkey with its fist inside the coconut shell, the leadership is incapable of relinquishing their ideological control over the nature of accounting as an intellectual discipline. Accounting research isn’t evolving toward irrelevance; it’s been irrelevant for quite some time. In spite of lip service to Imagining and Innovation, the management style of the AAA is to stifle Imagination and Innovation because that threatens the ideology and the associated reward structure that the financial reporting revolutionaries established nearly 50 years ago and from which they have so richly rewarded themselves. Virtually every North American doctoral program produces the same standardized education designed primarily to enable students to meet the standards of the so-called premier journals, which the revolutionaries also created. The accounting proclivity to standardize everything, even things we don’t understand well enough to standardize, has given us GASS (Generally Accepted Scientific Standards). I admit to being guilty of subsidizing through the dues I have paid this incoherent circumstance of needing more creativity in the academic process but allowing that process to be managed by an organization that has repeatedly demonstrated its inability to cede its autocratic instincts. I have been waiting for decades for our “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take in anymore,” moment. It appears it will never come.

* The history of accounting academia post WWII with its fixation on price level effects and income theories, the creation of JAR and its positivist ideology, and the information metaphor itself stem from intellectual contempt for the premises of accountants in the field. With the exception of Ijiri, the academy abandoned a long time ago the discourses that informed practice because they were intellectually inferior to those of neoclassical economics.

** “Seminal” is apropos since all of the winners so far have been men.