"The truth should make somebody important uncomfortable": Professor Tim Fogarty on the merits of controversial research
Posted 6.11.13"The truth should make somebody important uncomfortable": Weatherhead Professor of Accountancy Tim Fogarty on the merits of controversial research
A research paper forthcoming in the Journal of Accounting Education examined North American scholars who contributed to the top 14 accounting education journals between 1966 and 2011. The paper’s authors found that among scholars who actively teach, Tim Fogarty, PhD, professor of accountancy, was the most prolific contributor between 1992 and 2011. Fogarty’s interests encompass accounting education and much more; his research applies to human organizations of every kind, shape and size.
W: You’ve published papers with coauthors and also on your own. Which do you prefer?
TF: I have experienced the joys of both. Some of these articles were written with doctoral students or junior colleagues, others were with people who have complementary skills to mine.
W: Is your work on accounting education part of your main research stream?
TF: No, as a matter of fact. As I have gotten older, I’ve done more accounting education research, but I’m still very interested in several, perhaps too many, other things.
There are two general themes in my work on accounting education. The first is student-related and has to do with the teaching and learning process and the great mystery of how people learn things. There are some very fundamental questions that we don’t know the answer to. For example, what is the relationship between the amount of effort a student puts in and what they learn? If you make feedback available, but students have to ask for it, will they demand it? It’s taken for granted that feedback is important, but if students receive it, will it help them learn? These are things that people outside the accounting field want to know, also.
W: What have you found out through this research that surprised you?
TF: Learning is a lot more complicated than it seems, and it has to do with being self-aware. Good students know when they’ve done well, but bad students don’t. There’s a psychological dimension here. Perhaps it’s related to viewing the world as a random place rather than a place where you’re master of your own destiny.
The second theme of my work on accounting education is a social and political critique of education and mostly has to do with accounting faculty and institutions. I study power dynamics, in other words, elite control and management of the rest of us.
W: Does that mean the power dynamics at play in an accountancy department, or within a university?
TF: I have not studied intra-faculty relations, but tend to focus instead on the organization of academic disciplines and business schools in the U.S. at large. For example, I look at the way prestigious schools dominate. They work their way into maintaining control by determining the criteria by which schools are judged. The characteristics that are considered to be good just so happen to be the ones that they have.
W: That makes so much sense!
TF: All research should make sense! If it does not have the ring of truth, it probably isn’t.
Otherwise, I basically do sociological investigation of accounting organizations. It’s in keeping with the second educational theme I mentioned. I study public accounting and accounting regulation, and I do some tax work. For example, I have looked at how U.S. companies keep their money “permanently reinvested” abroad, but suddenly, when there’s a tax holiday, it turns out it’s not so permanent, and all the money floods back.
I work a lot with institutional theory. In a nutshell, all organizations have to create the impression that they’re doing the right thing, that what they do is aligned with the values we all have. But what they actually do is a different matter. I look at how organizations manage this tension.
W: Like greenwashing, when a company says it’s “sustainable,” but maybe its operations haven’t changed at all?
TF: That would be one example. Every grad student should confront an “aha” moment where they come across an idea that seems to explain everything. This was mine. I always say, follow the money, not the words. When it’s in somebody’s best interests to do something other than what they profess to believe in, they will often do it.
W: This sounds very controversial!
TF: It’s not worth doing research if it’s not controversial. Research should be about finding the truth, and the truth should make somebody important uncomfortable.
W: Your research seems like it applies all over, not just in accounting.
TF: That’s probably because I’m not much of an accountant! I never really drank that Kool-Aid. I have a stronger background in sociology, economics and law, so it’s easy to find ideas from that world to apply to the utterly fascinating accounting world.
W: Do you teach straight-up accounting classes?
TF: I try to do everything that exists on the fringes of debits and credits. I teach business law, tax--these are on the side of accounting. I do teach accounting but only when my colleagues are unavailable. Right now, I’m doing a seminar on fraud. If you’re interested in duplicity--and who isn’t?--that’s where it’s at.
W: What do you think of the Cleveland Browns’ owner, Jimmy Haslam, and his company, which the FBI says committed fraud?
TF: I only know what I read in the papers, but I think there are two dimensions involved in cases like this. First, there is usually one special thing that makes it ridiculously easy for a company to commit the fraud. Here, Jimmy Haslam’s company was contracting with companies often founded by self-made guys who were not conventionally educated, truckers who had built their own trucking empires. Unless they were smart enough to employ first-rate legal and accounting talent, nipping rebates could have been like taking candy from a baby.
But the second thing is, he made one mistake: becoming owner of the Browns. That put him under the microscope. He could have continued doing what he did for a zillion years and died very rich if he had not become owner of the team. When your money is suspect, you can either have it or fame--not both.
W: It sounds like hubris may have been his fatal flaw.
TF: Sometimes, the mighty must fall. It’s vainglorious and almost a pathology that makes people this way. When enough is not enough, it goes beyond Machiavellian. Good theater for the rest of us.
Find more information on Tim Fogarty's recent publications, including a prize-winning paper on student course evaluations coauthored with Gregory Jonas, assistant professor of accountancy; and Larry Parker, professor of accountancy.