UI Accountancy head seeks to beef up faculty

CHAMPAIGN — The newly appointed head of the University of Illinois Accountancy Department says it needs more senior faculty members.

Jon S. Davis, a former UI accounting professor who is slated to return as department head in April, said the department has "only four full professors and about 24 or 25 junior faculty."

"It's inverted compared to what you'd normally like to see," said Davis, 54, who has been at the University of Wisconsin at Madison since 2001.

"I'd like to see seven or eight full professors," he said, noting senior faculty are needed to "create a culture" that attracts junior faculty.

Illinois isn't alone in that situation, Davis said.

"It's endemic in accounting across universities," he said. "There's a large bubble of faculty at or near retirement. A lot over the last five to 10 years have retired."

At Illinois, last year's departures of professors Ira Solomon and Clifton Brown were "two key losses," Davis said.

Solomon, who had been at the UI since 1983 and head of the UI's Accountancy Department since 2002, left last summer to become dean of Tulane University's business school. Brown joined Solomon at Tulane as associate dean for accreditation and strategic planning.

In last year's ranking of the top accounting schools by U.S. News & World Report, the University of Illinois placed No. 4 nationally.

Ahead of Illinois were the University of Texas in first place, the University of Pennsylvania in second and the University of Chicago in third.

Ranking behind Illinois were Michigan, Stanford, Brigham Young, Southern Cal, New York University and North Carolina.

Davis said the ratings he pays the most attention to are those in Public Accounting Report, which surveys accounting faculty about what they perceive are the most superior undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs.

"Over the last 20 years, Illinois and Texas and BYU have almost always been in the top three or four schools. They bounce around. The last few years, Texas has been No. 1 and Illinois No. 2," he said.

In the latest rankings, published in Public Accounting Report's Dec. 16, 2011, issue, Illinois ranked second among undergraduate programs, with Texas first and BYU third.

Among graduate programs, the three schools were ranked the same way. Among doctoral programs, Illinois ranked sixth, behind Texas, Stanford, Chicago, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Davis said Illinois has an innovative curriculum, thanks to Project Discovery, created about 15 years ago. The Project Discovery curriculum emphasizes problem-solving exercises that include cases, simulations and group projects.

He said some updating and fine-tuning of the curriculum is needed, and he'd like to involve alumni in the review.

Larry DeBrock, dean of the UI College of Business, said "a large pool of candidates" applied for the accountancy position, given the national profile of the program.

Eventually, three finalists were invited to campus, and Davis was "warmly received by the faculty," DeBrock said.

"Jon was a unique candidate with a couple great advantages," DeBrock said. "He had been on the faculty for seven years, from 1994 to 2001, and knows a lot about the faculty, community and curriculum."

Plus having been away from campus for a decade, he could bring "a new set of external eyes to the program," DeBrock said.

DeBrock said accountancy is the largest major in the business college and its popularity is growing, so recruiting new faculty is vital.

But it's getting increasingly difficult to do so because the market for accounting professors with doctoral degrees is tight nationwide, he said.

Faculty will choose places where they can do research and teach smart students, he said, and Illinois fills that bill.

Davis said he wanted to be a professor since the age of 4. But after getting degrees from the University of Arizona, he went to work for Deloitte Haskins Sells as a certified public accountant. He later turned to academia.

"I think doing research is a ton of fun. I really like it a lot," he said. "I also like the administrative side, helping an organization be productive and making it so people really enjoy their work."

Davis said he hopes to teach a course in the UI master's degree tax program in Chicago. He also plans to recruit professionals to take part in the department's Lyceum speaker series.

Davis' specialty is tax policy, in particular regulatory compliance. In his research, he sometimes uses agent-based modeling. Using that kind of modeling is helpful in studying issues such as fraud, he said, because researchers can observe behavior within organizations and determine what interventions might work to curb fraud.

Davis is an ardent user of social media, writing a blog and using Twitter, Facebook and other forms of online communication.

"I've always been kind of a tech guy. That's where the world is going," he said. But he says he still doesn't devote enough time to it.

He says social media is important within academia because "faculty value is reputationally based" — as are careers in film and sports — and social media can serve to enhance reputations.

"A lot of it goes to marketing," he said. "Going forward, that's where faculty can create more value for themselves."

Davis is also a cycling enthusiast, having taken it up a few years ago on the advice of a doctor.

"I try to get out every day for an hour or so," he said, noting that he did a 100-mile ride in Wisconsin's Door County.

His other interests include learning to play guitar, sampling varieties of beer and playing World of Warcraft, an online role-playing game.

Davis said he left Champaign-Urbana for the University of Wisconsin in 2001 "mainly because of family concerns — I had relatives in Wisconsin."

Plus, the opportunity was good. "I would be pretty much the main tax guy, and Madison is a nice place to live," he said.

Davis eventually became chairman of the Department of Accounting and Information Systems at Wisconsin.

But he said he's eager to return to Champaign-Urbana.

In the 11 years since he headed to Madison, "Champaign has come a long way. ... There's not as much a difference (between Champaign-Urbana and Madison) as there used to be," he said, specifically noting the revitalization of downtown Champaign.

Davis, who is buying a house in Urbana, said he looks forward to subdued traffic and favorite restaurants, including Radio Maria, Cafe Kopi and Papa Del's.

This story appeared in print on Feb. 26.

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