State-Funded Accounting Research

Preface: Let it be assumed that every research professor who sees this post will be offended and/or angry. Please know that I don’t dislike you or have anything personal against any one of you. I count many research professors as friends of mine, and hope I can continue to do so. The point I want to make below is that I think way too many taxpayer dollars are being spent on academic research.

I’ve been watching all the hand-wringing, angst, and legitimate concern over the budget woes, especially in Minnesota and Wisconsin. At least in Minnesota they’re not threatening to take away collective bargaining rights for most state employees, most notably the teachers and professors who are state employees.

Even though it won’t completely solve the budget problems, I’m still amused that the cost of doing (what I will call EXCESSIVE) academic research at the state-supported colleges and universities hasn’t been studied. For example, consider this question:

HOW MANY ACCOUNTING RESEARCHERS SHOULD THE STATE OF MINNESOTA EMPLOY?

To help you form an answer, let me point out a few things based on my 17 years of experience as a faculty member in a few different accounting departments across the country, mostly at research universities.

  • Most research professors typically teach about half as large a teaching load as a teaching-only faculty member.
  • Research professors (with PhD) typically make $20K – $60K in extra salary over a full-time teaching professor/instructor (usually adjunct, usually without PhD)
  • Based on the data above, it would be typical for 24 credits of accounting courses to be taught for an adjunct at a cost (incl. benefits) of approximately $75,000 per year. The same 24 credits taught by two research-professors (12 credits each, per year) would cost about $250,000. To me, that means the cost of the research is about $87,5000 per research-professor. Some more, some less. (And yes, I realize that it’s a little more complicated than just this teaching cost vs. research cost dichotomy, but I think it covers the essentials.)
  • Tenured professors tend to be researchers first, and teachers second; while non-tenured instructors tend to have only teaching responsibilities and hired on a term-to-term basis (with some exceptions).
  • Teaching-only faculty members tend to be hired because they are good instructors. Tenure-track positions tend to be filled with those who the university believes will get published – whether they can teach a lick is not very important.

When I taught accounting at the University of Minnesota Duluth from 1987 to 1993, I was a non-tenure-track “teaching specialist” with a course load of 12 credits per semester/quarter. The tenured or tenure-track professors taught 6 credits per semester and were charged with getting extremely esoteric research articles published in the accounting journals.

It was my opinion then, and it is still my opinion now, that almost no one who works in the accounting industry gives a rat’s behind about the published research in the academic accounting journals. Most of it is completely irrelevant or totally incoherent to the people who actually work in the accounting profession (with a few exceptions, of course).

Around 1990, I conservatively calculated the cost of academic research in accounting at well over one million dollars, just in the state of Minnesota. My guess is that the cost is substantially higher today. Clearly, this doesn’t solve the budget problems, but keep in mind that this is only one discipline area. Add in several more disciplines where academic research is performed mainly for the benefit of the academicians who perform it. The calculation of $1M+ was based on what they were paying the researchers to teach compared to what it would have cost for that same number of courses to be taught by people in non-researching faculty positions (similar to the example added above in the bullet points).

I understand that this won’t solve the budget crisis – but it begs the question of whether we should be cutting K-12 teacher positions, increasing class sizes, taking away bargaining rights – instead of making some changes in areas such as this.

Without going through the accounting professor rosters at the University of Minnesota campuses and the MnSCU state university campuses, let me take an informed guess and say that there are at least 50 (FIFTY!) academic researchers in the accounting departments of these schools.

Maybe the state of Minnesota (insert your state name here) should pay the best 2 or 3 researchers in accounting to continue to produce this kind of product. I can’t imagine that there is a real need in society for any more than that. If every state did that, we would have 100-150 accounting researchers at public institutions of higher learning across the U.S. Then you can add in the researchers who work in the accounting field (non-academicians) and those who are employed by the private universities (they can do what they want with their money) and you still have one hell of a lot of accounting researchers out there.

On second thought, 100-150 academic researchers in accounting still sounds like too many to me.

To dissuade me from this argument, I will need someone to convince me that this very large use of public funding has a significant payoff for society as a whole, and that we would be better off with these millions of dollars be spent elsewhere.

Postscript: I do not lump all types of research into the same category. I am not proposing that we reduce the amount of spending on certain types of medical research or other things where added value for society as a whole can be demonstrated. I am not a hater of research or researchers, but I do think that the situation described above is an incredible waste of taxpayer dollars.

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  1. […] I posted some thoughts about whether it makes sense for public institutions (and the taxpayers and students who fund them) […]

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