The Thrill of Numbers

This Minnesota accounting prof's classes are downright excitingleading some students to change majors

BusinessWeek asked business undergrads to tell us about their favorite professors. Here is another installment in the series.

As a kid, Paul White loved watching the Cubs games on TV because the announcers would broadcast from the bleachers sitting among the fans. A lecturer of accounting at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, he recreates that intimate feel in his classes by sitting among his students while teaching.

Paul White

Paul Andrew White


University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management


"The secret to a great accounting class is making a room filled with 60 students feel like it's just a group of five sitting around a table,&quote; says the Wisconsin native. He adds that this helps increase their participation. And if that doesn't do the trick, once in a while, White will buy pizza for the entire class—even the larger ones.


  Whatever he's doing, it's working. Students from the Carlson school most frequently listed White as their favorite professor when surveyed in 2006 by BusinessWeek. Besides offering practical lessons, White also has a good sense of humor. &quote;He's knowledgeable, teaches well, and is easy to approach,&quote; says Benjamin Adam Simm, a recent alumnus who took White's Management Accounting class. &quote;Other professors have had these qualities, but usually only one or two to the same degree as White.&quote;

For the past four years, White has been teaching classes such as Financial Reporting and Managerial Accounting for undergrads, and Management Accounting for MBAs at Carlson. This fall he'll add Intermediate Financial Accounting at the undergraduate level.

The connection he makes with students is his guarantee that his classes will be anything but a number-crunching bore. &quote;He is the only professor who has the ability to make me enjoy accounting,&quote; says Nicole Annemarie Felling, a senior who took Introduction to Financial Reporting and Introduction to Management Accounting. &quote;We talk frequently outside of class, and he is always available for help.&quote;


  White, who is also a faculty adviser, takes pride in being close to most of his students. Sometimes students are unaware of opportunities because they don't take the time to examine themselves and what they're good at, says White, who worked for 10 years in audit, budgeting, analysis, and financial and managerial accounting as a comptroller and consultant.

White learned how much he enjoyed teaching colleagues, and took that as his cue to pursue becoming a professor. Using his vast industry experience, he sits with students outside of class to determine their career goals. When he sees students interested in public accounting, he directs them to specific firms and helps them to network.

As a teacher, White wants students to gain practical skills that can help them in life. Many students will wind up running their own business, says White, and they're not going to get much exposure to accounting besides this initial accounting class. He shows them how to maintain internal control over cash, handle cash in small business, and be aware of employees who embezzle.


  At large companies, White's students will know how to use information to make better business decisions. A problem with accountants today, he says, is that they tend to be producers of numbers rather than users of information. They grind out financial information, not knowing what it means in terms of business decisions, he says.

Students find this practical approach unique. &quote;He taught from a very different point of view, using case studies as a main focus,&quote; says Brooke Michelle Hanssen, an MBA student who took White's Intermediate Management Accounting course as an undergrad. &quote;He helped us to understand that, unlike in some of our other classes, there is not always one correct answer to a question.&quote;

White usually stops during lectures for in-class exercises. For example, he'll lecture about direct and indirect accounting and split the class into groups and have them develop a strategy based on those two frames. It's a nice way to assess learning. White also enhances classes by offering examples from his own career.


  While White makes accounting easy to understand, he's not so easy with grades. Weary of grade inflation, White keeps class means on the low side. Students are told to focus on what they learn and not the grade they receive.

In his evaluations, however, students often comment that the class was difficult but fair. Larger intro class grades are based on three exams, a class project, four quizzes, and some other homework. But to make things easier, finals are not cumulative. Material gets divided into three exams, which ends up being five chapters per exam.

Perhaps the most rewarding part about teaching, says White, is the enthusiasm that college-age students have. They work hard, they're dedicated, and are extremely serious, he says. But that enthusiasm may be a product of White himself. Students sometimes come dreading an accounting class but end up pursuing it as a career. &quote;He encouraged me to pursue an accounting major and take the CPA exam,&quote; says Emily Rose Braun, who took two of White's classes during her junior and senior years at Carlson. &quote;This helped me find an excellent job after graduation.&quote;

White's most personally rewarding project is developing Carlson's Program for the Advancement of Classroom Excellence, which will have him helping PhD students by mentoring them in teaching. Thanks to White, more faculty will reach students the way he has for years.

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