By Jason Bramwell
After a forty-three-year academic career – the last thirty-four of which were spent as professor, chairman, and dean in the department of accounting at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business – Robert May, PhD, will be addressing 2013 graduating Master in Professional Accounting (MPA) students one last time.
May, 69, who is retiring from the university as KPMG Centennial Professor of Accounting, will be giving the commencement address to MPA students Friday, May 17.
"I think it's a very nice honor. It gives me a chance to say one last thing to the students," May told AccountingWEB.
During his tenure, May is credited with developing the McCombs School of Business MPA program, in which students graduate with both a bachelor's and a master's degree in accounting after five years. May also worked with Big 4 and national firms so students could fulfill their internship requirements during the fourth year of the MPA program.
"This degree, which is integrated across the undergraduate and graduate programs, is now top-ranked in the country and a model for accounting education," Lillian Mills, an accounting professor and chairman of the department of accounting for the McCombs School of Business, told AccountingWEB. "As the faculty coordinator for the Master of Science in Technology Commercialization program since 2010, Bob will leave a lasting legacy on the Texas economy as more students from science and technology learn to turn their ideas into viable businesses."
Claire Williams, who will be graduating May 17 with an MPA and a Bachelor of Business Administration in Accounting, told AccountingWEB that May taught the first accounting course she took at the University of Texas and is one of the reasons she pursued a degree in accounting.
"The foundation of accounting is important to all business degrees, and Dr. May helps students grasp that foundation and build on it during their subsequent courses," says Williams, who will begin working as an assurance staff member at the Dallas office of Ernst & Young in September. "Outside of the classroom, Dr. May works hard to assist students with extracurricular activities and helps them make the most of their opportunities at McCombs. As a former dean of the business school, Dr. May is aware of the many opportunities that students have during their time at the University of Texas."
After receiving his PhD in business with a concentration in accounting from Michigan State University in 1970, May went to the University of Washington where he spent the next nine years as an assistant professor and associate professor of accounting. In 1972, May took a one-year leave of absence as a visiting assistant professor at Stanford University.
In 1979, May was recruited by the University of Texas accounting department and joined the institution as a full professor in June of that year.
"Any teaching I did from 1979 to 1992 was auditing. I did that because the department needed that particular discipline taught, and I was capable of doing it," he says.
From 1980 to 1984, May served as chairman of the department of accounting. During that four-year term, May's top achievement was the invention and approval of the five-year MPA program.
"Our accounting department has often been a repeat number one department in the country
, and that's because of some things we resolved to do in the 1980s," he says. "The university was changing its standards at the time, so we made it through a difficult transition from a teaching/textbook/scholarly culture to a teaching and research-intensive organization. We had to do that as individual faculty and then collectively through our standards. The five-year program is a part of that. It's now the core of our MPA program."
May served a second four-year term as department chair from 1988 to 1992. During that time, he was able to secure a deal with various CPA firms for MPA student internships. May says the impetus of the internship program was that students who graduated with their MPA degree after five years needed to mature both personally and professionally.
"Every year we would try and negotiate with the predecessors to the Big 4 firms and with national firms on ground rules for dealing with our students, treating them well, and competing in a professional and decent fashion," May says. "We felt we needed to season the MPA students to give them more of a chance to mature as professionals. The Big 4 representatives told us they could employ any number of interns during the winter and early spring months. I took that back to the faculty with a recommendation that this was our one and only hope of having the majority of our young students get that extra boost in their education."
During the fourth year of their five-year MPA obligation, auditing students take their auditing course in the fall and then fulfill their internship requirements from January through spring break. After spring break, the auditors take short courses until the end of the semester, May says. Tax students take short courses in January and then intern at firms from February through April 15.
"In total, the students get about nine credits, including the internship. Because they had a winter job, they wouldn't need a summer job, and they could stay for summer school, take six hours, and not lose a beat in terms of their progress toward graduation," May says. "The recruiting for the internship program is in the spring of the third year, and it's like a feeding frenzy. Many of the students get a permanent job offer at the end of their internships because the firms have had a thorough look at them and a chance to evaluate them. It really satisfied the issue of whether the five-year program was adequate to prepare really good professionals."
From 1992 to 1995, May served as senior associate dean of the McCombs School of Business. Then, in 1996, after spending one year as interim dean, May was named dean, a position he held until 2002. As dean, May helped the school raise more than $150 million in gifts, including a $50 million naming gift from Texas businessman Red McCombs in 2000.
Since leaving the dean's office, May has taught a variety of financial and managerial accounting courses. He says his teaching style is more lecture/discussion versus using case-method instruction.
"I'm not a true case-method teacher. That takes a different kind of style, intellectual predisposition, and so forth," May says. "In the accounting discipline, you rarely ever get the job done unless you do in-class problems and exercises with your students participating in the solutions. The students have to adapt, to some extent, their learning styles to the discipline."
May's lecture/discussion teaching style is one that's benefited 2013 graduate Williams.
"His classroom is centered around lectures that include an explanation of the information, followed by teacher-led exercises," she says. "These exercises typically involve journal entries and T-accounts to help students understand the different balance sheet and income statement components. Dr. May has prepared me to understand financial statements and the relationships between each of the components."
"It's Been a Great Run"
As he looks back on his thirty-four-year career at the University of Texas, May has nothing but good things to say about his department of accounting colleagues and the staff at the McCombs School of Business.
"My colleagues in accounting have just been an absolutely terrific group of faculty and friends, and I can't say enough about their collective as well as their individual talents," he says. "The staff have been terrific in terms of getting behind the relentless improvement of the school over the years and being proud and dedicated of the quality of what we're delivering. I can honestly say that there's less than a handful of people in that entire thirty-four years who didn't meet my idea of high professional and personal standards. That's a blessing, and it's way beyond anything that you would expect."
But what May says he will miss the most about teaching is the interaction with his students.
"I do love the discipline, and when I was an active researcher, I loved going to seminars and mixing it up with others, trying to find what was right, what was wrong, and what was demonstrated by the evidence versus what wasn't. That's a great activity. But what I cared most about was the ability to convey and help students understand the discipline. The students I've taught and been associated with have been great," he says.
How is May going to enjoy his retirement? By playing a lot of golf, he says, but also by voluntarily serving on boards of directors and helping not-for-profit groups.
"As a dean, I ran a pretty big not-for-profit organization, a wholly owned subsidiary of the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business, and I learned a lot from it," May says. "Because I have a finance and accounting background, I can help not-for-profits navigate through their financial constraints, and I can help with strategy, personnel, and other things that are general management issues. I don't have a need or an objective to make money, so I figured this is the time to give back through pro bono consulting and noncompensated service on boards of directors.
"It's been a great run," he concludes. "I'm a very happy retiree. I've had a lot of opportunities for meaningful work, which is one of the great blessings in life, and thirty-four years of associating with good people."