In 1947 William Thriepland Baxter became the first full time Professor of Accounting in Britain. Michael Bromwich and Richard Macve consider themselves fortunate to have been his students, and later his colleagues, at LSE.
William (Will) Threipland Baxter was born on 27 July 1906 in Grimsby and died on 8 June 2006 in London. He qualified as a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS) whilst also obtaining a BCom degree at the University of Edinburgh. He spent two years in the USA on a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship visiting the University of Pennsylvania (the Wharton School) and Harvard Business School.
An early LSE connection
On his return to Britain from the United States in 1934 Will studied at LSE and was amazed at how well trained and facile in economics were the students of business administration under Sir Arnold Plant. They seemed to him to behave as professors.
“But I don’t think the School yet catered for students as well as it does now. I don’t think there were many, if any, classes of small groups of students so that they tended to organise the classes for themselves. I remember going to a Polish student’s residence and being led through an elementary description of averages with a group of other students. Then on Saturday morning we all played badminton down in the gymnasium and the Director came too, Beveridge, and bounded about with us. It was all very good fun.” – Will Baxter describing his year registered as an ‘occasional student at LSE in 1934
When he returned to Edinburgh as a lecturer in 1934, he maintained his connection with LSE. This gave him a strong economic perspective on accounting and suggested one of his most used and most useful teaching tools – always ask: “What difference will it make?” When in 1937 he took the Chair of Accounting at the University of Cape Town, it was at the suggestion of Arnold Plant.
Professor at LSE
Will joined LSE in 1947 as the first full-time professor of Accounting, again at the suggestion of Plant. He and colleagues David Solomons and Harold Eadey formed the “LSE triumvirate” who shaped the pattern for UK academic accounting after World War II and had a major influence on accounting standard setting on both sides of the Atlantic.
They sought to make accounting into a recognised academic discipline, requiring undergraduate students to take specialist economics courses.
“Will taught me the skill of presenting complex issues simply and not the other way around, which is what many seem to do.” – Duncan Paterson, MSc student (1976–1978); lecturer at LSE (1976–1980)
Will responded to what he saw as the lack of innovation in accounting literature by editing his pioneering collection Studies in Accounting. Over the next three decades it ran through two further editions, in collaboration with Sidney Davidson, University of Chicago. It challenged (and still challenges) conventional wisdom by presenting an economics-based approach to accounting within an overall framework which sees management accounting and financial accounting as two sides of the same coin. Understanding of accounting’s history and development is a crucial part of understanding its present and possible futures.
“Having been among the first students from Mauritius to follow the BSc (Econ) course… I had the chance to be lectured by Professor Baxter. Besides being a charming and soft-spoken person, he was a distinguished scholar. After graduating, as I was starting my professional training, I realized how advanced he was in his thinking and his proposals, so as to try and free the accounting world from the straitjacket of the historical cost convention… he must be remembered for having dared, as an academic, to challenge the dominant thinking of his time.” – Pierre Dinan, BSc Econ with specialisation in Accounting (1958–1961)
Will and his LSE colleagues looked out for bright young professional accountants without relevant degrees, and provided them with a ‘preparatory year’, followed by the MSc in Accounting and Finance. As was widespread at LSE at the time, much of the teaching was arranged for the evenings so that students could enrol part-time. Many of the UK’s leading accounting academics started this way.
“Professor Baxter was without equal in his ability to explain complex issues in simple terms.” – George Thomas, student (1952–1955)
Will Baxter as a teacher
Will was a very clear teacher who took great pains to explain things carefully at a time when teaching was often poor. Will adopted, and maybe pioneered, ‘tricks of the trade’ that have become part of the repertoire of modern teaching. He trained himself to be able to deliver a lecture so that it appeared to be given spontaneously (while his memory was actually being jogged by counting off the headings and subheadings on his fingers, with his hands hidden behind his back).
“Professor Baxter was one of my favourite professors: always courteous; always friendly; always explaining in understandable language the most obtuse accounting obscurities; and with an extraordinary memory and a gleam in his eye – altogether a gentle, caring and lovable person. This is how he remains in my memory.” – Pauline Graham, evening student (1960–1965)
Having been brought up in largely pre-microphone days, he remained able to project his voice to the back row of the lecture hall. In class, students were asked to mark the work of their classmates and then justify their gradings; and among examination questions that looked deceptively simple were those that could turn out to challenge the most intellectually accomplished:
“Think of a question about Accounting. Now answer it.”
Many of his pupils became leading accounting academics or reached the heights of the accounting profession, financial and general management in many spheres. All acknowledge his profound and lasting influence over their thinking.
“I was a part-time MSc student at LSE 1980-82 and was very privileged to be have been taught by Professor Baxter. He was always kind and considerate and took immense interest in his students. He was a man of great intellect and a great teacher. He inspired us all to think outside the box and not to easily run with the crowd.” – Prem Sikka, MSc student (1980–1982)
Will was honoured with the BAA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004 and by induction into the American Accounting Hall of Fame in 2005. Academic publication is important: but inspiring teaching surely remains even more so.
“The work of Professor Baxter, and that of his pupils, has had a profound effect on my thinking during the last 15 years working on accounting standards at ASB. I have also learned from his work how complex and powerful ideas can be explained elegantly and simply.” – Andrew Lennard, Accounting Standards Board
Abridged from Michael Bromwich and Richard Macve’s “William Thriepland Baxter: a tribute to his teaching” in The Routledge Companion to Accounting Education. See the original article for an unabridged version including references.
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