Dan Collins
Friday, October 14, 2016
Tom Snee

Talk to any accountant in Iowa, it’s likely that person has a connection to Dan Collins.

And talk to any accountant across the country, it’s possible that person has a connection to someone who has some connection to him.

Collins, a professor of accounting in the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business and current accounting department chair, started teaching at the UI after receiving his doctoral degree from Iowa in 1973. Except for a brief stint at Michigan State University in the mid-1970s, he’s been here ever since.

Collins headed the department’s doctoral program for over 20 years, and during that time, he served as dissertation chair for 36 PhD candidates who now teach accounting across the country. He says guiding doctoral students has a special place in his heart.

“Our philosophy is that we educate the educators, and that’s a strong part of the culture here, one of the strengths of the department,” he says. “It’s important to show future educators what quality research is, help them develop a knack for asking good research questions and developing appropriate research designs to address those questions. I have a lot of fun working with young people who are eager to learn new things, and I enjoy watching them make new discoveries.”

Collins was honored in August for his contributions to mentoring doctoral financial accounting students when he received the inaugural Distinguished PhD Mentoring Award from the American Accounting Association Financial Accounting and Reporting Section.

“Great teachers have a multiplier effect. If a faculty member can get 100 or 200 students excited about their work, then those students get other people excited about their work; you can touch a lot of lives.”

“About 25 or 30 of my former doctoral students came to the awards ceremony and posed for a group photo with me afterward,” he says. “That was very gratifying.”

Edward Maydew (PhD ’93) remembers working with Collins on his dissertation “was like being an apprentice to a Jedi master.”

“Just like in Star Wars, aspiring students would travel to a remote outpost, in this case Iowa City, to study with a renowned Jedi master,” says Maydew, who now teaches at the University of North Carolina. He remembers what it was like to be mentored by Collins, including presenting on research during workshops.

“Dan set the tone at Iowa for tough, rigorous research,” Maydew says. “We learned how to present our research, ask difficult questions, and in the process, became ready to go on the job market upon graduation. Not only that, but we now have PhD students who we are mentoring, so Dan has many academic children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren.”

Collins is an Iowa lifer. He grew up on a farm near Marshalltown and earned a BBA from UI in 1968. His late wife, Mary, was his high school sweetheart, and his two daughters and four grandchildren all live in Iowa. He’s served twice as the chair of the accounting department, from 1995 to 2002 and again from 2014 onward.

What made you want to pursue a career in accounting?

My uncle was an accounting major at Iowa and I always admired him, and since I liked working with numbers, it made sense. The job market in accounting was strong and still is. Anyone with an accounting degree is almost assured of getting a job. Last year, the UI accounting department had a 100 percent placement rate for students within three months of graduation.

The future employment prospects are strong for students with accounting degrees. Cybersecurity is becoming more and more important, so there will be lots of demand for people who can audit numbers and provide assurance that a firm’s information systems are protected from hackers.

More and more firms are using business analytics, too, which offers more professional opportunities. Accountants have skills to make sense of mountains of financial data and glean some insight from those data. We’re trained to look for inconsistencies in the numbers and to figure out how things can be done better and more efficiently.

The accounting profession’s reputation was tarnished 15 years ago when firms were implicated in corporate scandals that brought down companies like Enron. Has the profession recovered?

Largely so, I think. The regulatory changes that came as a result of high-profile accounting failures have rebuilt trust in the profession and have assured investors and others that a company’s financial reporting is accurate and reliable. The Sarbanes–Oxley Act, passed by Congress in 2002, requires internal controls over financial reporting to be audited by an outside audit firm, and it also led to more sanctions, more oversight, and an increase in the strength of corporate governance. The Public Company Accounting Oversight Board also came into existence to regulate auditors.

This has all had an impact, with firms paying more attention to internal controls and putting in place stronger boards with stronger audit committees.

Those crises turned out to be good for academics, by the way. The financial failures of the early 2000s spawned wide interest in figuring out ways to identify when accounting numbers are being managed inappropriately. We’ve developed better analytical techniques to spot potential fraud, and a lot of academic research has contributed to that.

You talked about the importance of doctoral work at Tippie. Where does undergraduate education fit?

Our undergraduate program is one of our strengths at the UI. That’s seen in the fact that the Big Four accounting firms and many regional and local firms recruit heavily here. We have thousands of alumni working around Iowa and the Midwest and have a significant presence in places like New York City, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, and Chicago.

Great teachers have a multiplier effect. If a faculty member can get 100 or 200 students excited about their work, then those students get other people excited about their work; you can touch a lot of lives. Former students tell me all the time that the success they have achieved in their career is because of something they learned in their accounting classes here at Iowa. That’s very gratifying.

What sets the Tippie accounting program apart from accounting programs at other universities?

Our writing program, which we established about 20 years ago. Every accounting class in our undergraduate and Master’s in Accounting programs has two or three writing assignments that are graded both for exposition and writing style and for technical accounting content, often by consultants from the world-renowned Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Last year, one of my former students, Bob Nicolls, and his wife, Kathy, generously helped establish a writing director position within the department of accounting to ensure we’ll be able to refine students’ writing skills for the foreseeable future.

I ask our alumni what’s the one thing that differentiates Iowa accounting students from graduates of other schools, and many of them say the writing program. Writing skills are so important to long-term success in the accounting profession and today’s business world.