Episode 89: Gary Peters Explains the New Master’s of Professional Accounting Program

September 16 , 2020  |  By Matt Waller

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Gary Peters' passion for the outdoors led him to work at a sporting goods store, where he decided he had a larger interest in business. As he studied business, Gary decided to pursue accounting and went on to teach at the University of Georgia. In 2003, he left Georgia to come back to his home state of Arkansas and the Walton College. Gary Peters is now the William Dillard Accounting Department Chair and S. Robson Walton Endowed Professor at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business.

Episode Transcript


00:08 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today Gary Peters who's the Chair of the Department of Accounting, and he also holds the S. Robson Walton Endowed Chair in Accounting. And the accounting department is now called the William Dillard Department of Accounting that was recently endowed by Bill Dillard. If you wonder, Robson Walton, who endowed the chair that Gary holds, was the chairman of the board of Walmart for many years, and one of the sons of Sam Walton. Thank you for joining me today, Gary.

01:10 Gary Peters: Thanks, Matt. It's always a pleasure to visit with you.

01:13 Matt Waller: So Gary, I wanna get right into the Master's of Accounting and the Master's of Professional Accounting. We've had the Master's of Accounting program, or what we often call as the MAcc for sometime, and now we have the Master's of Professional Accounting. Could you first just tell us a little bit about the difference in the two?

01:34 Gary Peters: Sure. The Master's of Accounting degree has been around for quite a while. It was around the late '90s, the Master's of Accounting degree was redesigned and put forward, and for a number of years, it was approximately 8-10 students would be in this, and it grew to around 20 students early 2000s. And then from then, it exploded with the university growth as well, and so now it's running around 40-50 students per year. When that degree was first designed, it was also in response to the 150-hour credit-hour requirement to take the CPA exam, and so what you saw is this national trend of a lot of students who thought, "Hey, I need to be in school longer, what else can I do?" And so it was also an opportunity to take advantage of extra time in school to pursue a master's degree. Originally, it was designed in a somewhat general format, and of course, with the changes in the profession, the nature of the analytical environment, the technology environment, and even the taxation environment, we just saw, as did a number of universities, a need to become more specialized in that particular discipline.

02:51 Gary Peters: And so, the key difference between the Master's of Accounting as it existed up till now, and the new Master's of Professional Accounting, really primarily is around the area of concentrations or specialization tracks. So the professional accounting degree, the Master's of Professional Accounting degree, gives you the ability to specialize in three areas: Taxation, assurance, and analytics, and then also there's a corporate leadership track; it provides them a number of other branch opportunities depending on the student's interest. So we're super excited about it.

03:25 Matt Waller: And how long is that program?

03:31 Gary Peters: The program is 30 credit hours, so it's essentially a one-year program. Occasionally, we see students who may decide to take the program over the course of say, three semesters, but it's primarily designed around the idea of a student who's gonna go back to school full-time. We do have an interesting way for our undergraduate students to bridge into the master's program, and that's through our Integrated Master's Program path. So it allows that student to really roll in and accomplish their final year as a part of their total college career.

04:11 Matt Waller: So if they do that, if they use that approach, which of the two master's programs are they in?

04:19 Gary Peters: So prior to this year, that student would join as an undergraduate student into the Integrated Master's Program path, and they would roll into the Master's of Accounting degree. With the new program, essentially, we're gonna have options for the student. They'll be able to roll into the Master's of Professional Accounting program, or for some students, maybe still, the older Master's of Accounting program still makes some sense. We're actually, right now, we are pausing admission into that Master's of Accounting program because it's actually going under a new redesign, given the fact that we now have the new Master's of Professional Accounting program. So we're actually trying to fine-tune the older one to even reach a particularly different segment.

05:09 Matt Waller: Great. Now, of your three concentrations in the Master's of Professional Accounting program, let's talk about a few those. You mentioned there's assurance and analytics, taxation and corporate accounting. Let's start with assurance and analytics. I know that today analytical decision-making is more possible than ever 'cause we have more data than ever, we also have tools that are easier to use. Would you mind speaking to that program just a little bit?

05:44 Gary Peters: Sure, the trends that we've seen in accounting is, we've noted that a lot of our accounting graduates will go to work in a public accounting and in, particularly, the audit space. And so part of this is a response to what we see in terms of changes in that particular sector. The use of more advanced assurance techniques or analytics techniques and skill sets has become particularly important. It's not unique to that sector, but it is certainly an important piece of it. That particular track also allows us quite honestly, and this is what I'm excited about is it allows us to partner with the great things that are happening to other parts of our college, particularly the Information Systems Department with their own analytical tracks.

06:27 Gary Peters: So a student who completes that track with us could receive a Master's of Professional Accounting degree as well as a certificate in Analytics through the Information Systems Department. So it's a really unique partnership, it's not unique strictly to public accounting because we actually see a lot of corporate accountants also need and pursue those skill sets. So a great example is maybe the internal audit space, but even beyond that, say controllership or the cost accounting space, those are certain areas that need advanced analytics tools as well.

07:03 Matt Waller: Boy, it is amazing how fast practice has changed as a result of big data and analytics. I know employers are always talking about that with us. So the next one is taxation, and taxation is something that can be quite complicated, and therefore they would say entrepreneurs like to look for problems and then solve them and boy, there's a lot of tax problems out there. So I would imagine having this kind of expertise would be pretty beneficial to students.

07:41 Gary Peters: Absolutely, Matt. I was speaking to one of our alumni not too long ago, and it was a person who edit their own accounting firm, but they pointed out the fact that every important business decision has a tax implication. And so if you have a business opportunity, a major business decision to make, it's good to have a tax person at the table because they're gonna be a major contributor or input into that decision. So, that part speaks to how broadly that particular track speaks to general business overall. The other thing I'll mention about that track, that I'm personally excited about it 'cause I think it's an evolution for us in our accounting department at the University of Arkansas, is the faculty expertise that we have in that space now. For a number of years, this area of specialization for tax was a really challenging and difficult product for us singly to deliver, but we've added a number of key faculty and a number of very important courses that allows us to give a very strong and rigorous concentration in that area now.

08:55 Gary Peters: So whenever I go to employers, and these are employers that may have recruited our students for 20 years, one of the things I'm always emphasizing to them now is, "Hey, we have a really strong set of tax students that are coming out of our programs now so be sure that you recruit our students in that particular area." And I've really seen a general uptick in the attention being placed to our program for that taxation area, particularly with respect to jobs, and this is be our, really with the Master's of Professional Accounting, our first year to offer that concentration, and we are actually already seeing a critical mass of students select into that. So this year, the first year that we've had it, we'll have 50-60 students in the Master's of Professional Accounting program. We're anticipating 15 students will be selected into the taxation track, or they will select into the taxation track. We'll have others that will then select between the corporate accounting versus the assurance and analytics track, but tax is a very important area for us and really excited about what it's gonna deliver for the students.

10:01 Matt Waller: So, would you mind talking just a little bit about the corporate accounting track?

10:07 Gary Peters: Yeah, the corporate accounting track is a little bit different, I think it's a unique piece of the puzzle for us, and I think over time, students are gonna figure out a way... They're gonna figure out like, how can they leverage that particular track to a very unique or distinct objective. Let's take for an example, the student who says, "Hey, I'm really interested, I'm really interested in accounting, I wanna pursue a master's degree in accounting, but part of my heart perhaps is in entrepreneurship," or they think to themselves, "I wanna go into corporate accounting and perhaps a sector that I wanna be in is in the supply chain area." So the way that we've designed that corporate accounting track is allow those students to do subspecialties, it could be in supply chain, it could be in entrepreneurship, it could be in finance.

11:00 Gary Peters: A lot of our students will go down the finance route. A good example of that, that I'm excited about that might be in the future, is new partnerships that we'll have with employers around some of these tracks. Prime example is, we had a discussion last week with some representatives from Stevens, and they were very interested in what's happening with the University of Arkansas students and the potential for internships in full-time employment down the road. And immediately, I'm thinking, "Hey, this is a great fit, particularly perhaps for that corporate accounting track, where students can really get a broad-based knowledge at the graduate level within an accounting emphasis that could lead them into some of those other investment spaces."

11:42 Matt Waller: I know you have a lot of demand for these programs, and your new master's program is extremely innovative, so congratulations on the great work you and your department did. One other big piece of news is that the department was named, of course, that's huge news, the William Dillard Department of Accounting, there aren't a lot of accounting departments that are named in the country, and of course, Dillard's is a name that people recognize, so that gives your department a lot of visibility, but it also gives it some resources for a number of things, and I know one part of the use of that gift is going to be towards scholarships for the master's degree, so that's gonna really increase the number of students who can afford to get the master's degree.

12:36 Gary Peters: That's right, the naming of the department is a game changer for us and the timing of this relative to also the start of our new Master's of Professional Accounting program is phenomenal as well. I wish I could say that it was designed specifically the timing to match 'em up, but it just has worked out this way. All good things begin to come together, and certainly we've been working hard on both of these fronts for a long time, but getting them to both happen at the same time was very fortuitous for us, and I think the benefit for the student is remarkable because a key component of that gift was specifically targeted to scholarships for graduate students. The financial cost or financial implication of those programs is not small, so it takes a huge investment, a lot of sacrifice for a number of people, but the scholarships that are gonna be arranged specifically for this effort is fantastic.

13:38 Gary Peters: I can anticipate seeing a case where, let's say that we have an incoming group of 60 Master's of Professional Accounting students, my expectation is that at least half of those students are going to receive some form, significant form of financial aid, and part of that's gonna come through scholarships, so part of that's gonna come through assistantships, a big part of it is gonna come through these new Dillard scholars that we've designed out of that naming gift. This is an area that we're continuing to pursue. We have a number of people that are partnering with us on this, and we just see more and more scholarships happening every day, and I think just the way that that's leveraged to provide a return for the individual, for the university and for the accounting industry in general, it's a great thing.

14:36 Matt Waller: Well, Gary, congratulations on all the great progress you've made and your department's made over the past few years, it's quite remarkable. I mean, the new master's program is just clearly addresses a need in the market, it was well conceived, well researched. Of course, you've got great faculty teaching in it, but then with the Dillard's gift, your department is just really hitting on all cylinders, so to speak.

15:06 Gary Peters: You bet. Dillard's gift is gonna allow us to make a deeper investment in our analytics curriculum, and this may come in the form of additional faculty, that can come in the form of additional databases that'll be available to students. The gift is also gonna allow us to make a greater effort and providing special events for the students and for the local accounting community at large. And so I think just allowing the students to interact with the accounting community is going to be a big major plus for that experience. The other thing I'll mention about that is the fact that so many of the different master's programs and departments are partnering with each other, I think this is gonna be a gift that's not gonna be just specific to accounting but it's gonna help a number of graduate students over the long run.

15:55 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching beepicpodcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.