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ACCOUNTING SPOTLIGHT - Liberal (arts) leaning: In Rutgers' MBA program, that's a good thing

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As a music teacher in the Westfield public schools system, everyone figured Douglas Schwarz knew how to lead a marching band.

But only one group figured he would be a leading candidate for an MBA in accounting: the admissions officers at Rutgers Business School in Newark.

As academia attempts to create the accountant of the future, some programs are marching to the beat of their own drum.

Alexander Sannella, the director of the MBA in Professional Accounting Program at Rutgers, said the school has found a liberal arts background can make for the ideal accounting student.

“It's about those broader thinking skills,” Sannella said. “And definitely you find that the decision-making and communication skills are strong from that population.”

He's been convinced enough to continue the program's long tradition of recruiting such students. Currently, students who previously studied liberal arts account for 40 percent of enrollment for the 14-month graduate accounting program.

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Schwarz, who now works in the audit practice at Deloitte's Parsippany office, saw the connection as well.

Schwarz would contend that teaching music is a skill that's harmonious with an accountant's work.

It's not too unlike being a conductor and preparing for student concerts, Schwarz said.

With the concert's score, it was his job to “look it over; take detailed notes, like on where the clarinets come in; bring together a bunch of different sections.

“That's, in a way, similar to an auditor's analysis of the financial statements of our clients,” he added. “But we're just looking at numbers instead of musical notes.”

Sannella said it doesn't matter how much — or how little — training in accounting mechanics those entering the program have, especially considering expertise in that aspect of the profession is not always what a company looks for.

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“The larger the firm, the less important those mechanics are,” he said. “There's a significant investment into the training already at the large firms, so a lot of the mechanics are taught in-house.”

Sannella's caveat is that the smaller firms do require that new hires be 100 percent desk-ready.

The program, which costs roughly $42,000 for in-state students and $80,000 for out-of-state students, accepts about 70 students at a time. And it wouldn't take in the multidisciplinary talent that it does if they weren't capable of learning even the stringent mechanics.

A testament to it being a working model is the proliferation of mimics.

“(Rutgers' program) was the first of its kind in America,” Sannella said. “We have some imitators now, and some are doing well.”

None exist within New Jersey, but one need not look too far.

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Northeastern University in Boston, for example, now has an 18-month professional accounting program with a similar format and philosophy.

The numbers also say it's an approach that works.

Rutgers boasts more than 130 partners and principals in the Big Four firms are alumni of the program. More are involved in other capacities.

And at least one of them used to be a music teacher.

“It seems like a big risk to go from talking about music to talking about finances,” Schwarz said. “But, at least for me, it was the best decision I ever made.”

E-mail to: brettj@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @reporterbrett

THE MAN WITH THE PLAN

Behind the Rutgers MBA in Professional Accounting Program’s recruiting of students with diverse academic backgrounds is one man: the late William von Minden.

It was thought by von Minden, a professor of accounting, that raising accountancy to the prestige of professions like law and medicine required more than a four-year undergraduate degree.

He also reportedly believed entrants to the graduate program he spearheaded, which officially began in 1956, should possess a “well-rounded liberal arts education.”

“There are plenty of stories,” said Alexander Sannella, the current program director. “He used to drive to many of the Ivy League schools, and actually walk into classes in an effort to recruit liberal arts students.”

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Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson

Brett Johnson covers a wide array of sectors as a general assignment reporter. Before joining NJBIZ in 2014, he lived on the West Coast and wrote for a newspaper in Davis, Calif. You can contact him at brettj@njbiz.com or @ReporterBrett on Twitter.

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