Accounting Scholars Elect Horngren to Hall of Fame

Content originally appeared in Stanford Business magazine in December 1990.

On August 9, during the American Accounting Association’s annual meeting in Toronto, Charles T. Horngren, Edmund W. Littlefield Professor of Accounting, was inducted into the Accounting Hall of Fame. Horngren was only the fiftieth person to be so honored in the 40 years of the Hall of Fame’s existence. The citation by Professor Thomas J. Burns of Ohio State University and Horngren’s response, delivered with his usual sense of humor, are excerpted below.

Citation from Thomas J. Burns

Among the most influential teachers of his generation, Charles T. Horngren has been a dominant force in changing the traditional courses in internal accounting from cost accounting’s overemphasis on accumulation and calculation of product costs to managerial accounting, which explores the uses of costs for various purposes. A chief vehicle for this change has been his text Cost Accounting: A Managerial Emphasis, first published in 1962. This patrician professor was born into a blue-collar Milwaukee neighborhood of what was then called a mixed marriage. His mother was Irish Catholic and his father Swedish Lutheran. The father worked for over 40 years as a mail clerk on the Milwaukee Road. The son grew up within sight of a major set of railroad tracks and a large A. 0. Smith factory.

When he was seven, Horngren wanted to be pope but became discouraged over how “Pope Chuck” would sound. When he was eight, he decided to become a major league baseball player after his father, an avid sports fan, took him to Sunday doubleheaders with the Brewers. His hero was Lou Gehrig, and Horngren still remembers his ecstasy at his first big-league baseball game. Gehrig hit two home runs in his first two times at bat. At nine, Horngren reluctantly gave up this goal when he found he didn’t play well enough. His junior year at Marquette University, after tutoring basketball players and disabled veterans in accounting, he discovered that teaching was what he wanted.

In 1955, he earned his doctorate from the University of Chicago with a dissertation on the uses of financial statements. There was one delay. His wife, Joan, upstaged him by giving birth to their first child, their only son, Scott, the very same morning his oral defense was scheduled. In 1959, Horngren was lured back to a tenured post with the University of Chicago. In 1965, he joined the Stanford GSB faculty.

This professor has led the world in developing managerial accounting, not only in his classes but especially with his writing. Moreover, with the help of his senior colleagues, particularly Bob Jaedicke and Bob Sprouse (who left the Stanford GSB faculty to join the Financial Accounting Standards Board at its inception in 1973), Horngren has also fostered two generations of academics who have achieved eminence in their own right: first Chicago-bred Joel Demski, his former student, and Bill Beaver; and later George Foster, Jim Patell, and Mark Wolfson.

He has further been a national leader in such organizations as the American Accounting Association, the National Association of Accountants, and the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants as a member of the Accounting Principles Board (APB) from Opinions 13 through 31.

He is devoted to his family. He calls his wife, Joan, his “balance wheel.” In a unique gesture, he funded a Stanford accounting professorship in her name, even if she didn’t remember what the initials “APB” stand for.

He unsmilingly believes that teaching is a noble profession and the harder you work, the luckier you get. He is the fiftieth inductee into the Accounting Hall of Fame.

Response — Charles T. Horngren

A professor’s career is heavily affected by his or her teachers, colleagues, and students. Mine is no exception. No matter where I have worked, I have always benefited from the stimulation of those around me.

The teaching of accounting has provided concrete self-satisfaction. Compared to many subjects, the body of knowledge in accounting courses is relatively well-defined. So a teacher can obtain quick feedback on the amount learned by students, even on a day-to-day basis.

All in all, in over 40 years of teaching, I have had at least 12,000 students in various classes. Because I habitually invite comments and questions, I invariably obtain useful knowledge and insights from students. I am convinced that students have kept me younger than I would be otherwise.

Of course, there are costs and benefits from almost everything we do. Having had so many students, I always try to be on my best behavior. Big Brother may not be watching, but a student may be looking — especially in airports. You can judge whether such a phenomenon is a cost or a benefit.

Every once in a while, I get a note or a letter from a grateful student. Such kind words lighten my spirits enormously. I remember, as an 18-year-old army private, writing a thank-you letter to my stern, demanding, motivating high school English teacher. It made me feel good that I took the time to recognize superb teaching. I especially urge the young members of this audience to write at least one similar letter to a special teacher of theirs — not next year, but next week. Just do it.

I am a strong supporter of having more professors exploring all three sides of the triangle of teaching, research, and practice. The more who do so, the stronger all three sides will become.

For many summers I have been teaching in the Stanford Executive Program. On July 4, 1988, I happened to be teaching one of the three scheduled classes. The other two classes were taught by Hal Leavitt, the managerial psychologist, and Ezra Solomon, well known in finance and economics. We had been colleagues at the University of Chicago in 1953, 35 years before. What is the probability of such an event? Careers, like all of life, take unexpected twists and turns.

When I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the senior member of the accounting faculty was Jim March. A son, Jim Jr., is my colleague at Stanford. He is a world-renowned researcher in organization theory. Jim Jr.’s son Roderic, MBA ‘83, was a student in two of my classes at Stanford. So I have known three generations of Marches. The world sometimes seems small.

The greatest satisfaction of my professional life is that — given the job to be done, and given the time available to do it — I have given my best. The least satisfaction has come from lack of time. With more time, my output would have had better quality. With more time, I would have been able to keep up with the bursting literature that overwhelms me increasingly each year.

During World War II, Winston Churchill was informed by one of his ministers of a noteworthy fact: “If all the brandy you have consumed in your lifetime were poured here, this spacious room would be filled to the top of your desk.” Gazing at the ceiling, Churchill replied, “So little done, so far to go.”

That is my major message today — to my colleagues in accounting education, to accounts, managers, and students. Accounting and management education have advanced considerably since I was a student, but it has far to go. It merits serious efforts by all of us.