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Accountants: solving problems in business and beyond

“There’s an elephant in the room,” says Dick Riley, chair of the Accounting department at the Chambers College. “I’m not afraid to look it in the eye and say, ‘I know you’re there, and you’re wrong!”

Time for a thought experiment: imagine an accountant.

You might be picturing Coke-bottle glasses, beige walls, a pocket protector and long days punching numbers into spreadsheets. If this picture is worth a thousand words, “cool” isn’t one of them.

Accounting can be a tough sell, and nobody knows that better than Riley.

As Riley puts it, the accountant in your head is doing what’s known as transaction accounting, which partly involves tracking all the payments and deposits for a business or individual.

But accountants don’t just balance spreadsheets. They help make decisions at the highest levels.

“That misperception is related to the first few introductory classes, where you have to learn the foundations of accounting,” Riley says.

“But once you’ve learned that, the fun part is helping people solve business problems.”

Say, for instance, a business discovers that it’s spending $200,000 more on payroll than initially estimated. Someone is going to ask why — and accountants are going to answer them, rooting through the data to find the leak.

“All of our upper-level undergraduate courses now include some level of data analytics as part of the course,” Riley says. “We take a step back and say, ‘What do these numbers mean? Why are they off?’”

“It’s not just financial numbers either. For example, at a place like WVU, it could be things like enrollment trends, placement rates. We can bounce them off the financial data to help the decision makers do their jobs.”

Photo of students studying in Reynolds Hall lounge

Accountants aren’t just valuable for businesses, though. Governments also benefit from their expertise.

That’s why the Accounting department offers the State Auditor’s Experience for both undergraduate and Masters of Accountancy students. Participants analyze the expenditures of state employees, then send that data back to the state auditor’s office, which uses it to determine where action is needed.

Looking for clues and tracking down wrongdoers – remind you of anything? Raymond Chandler never wrote about the difference between fixed and variable costs, but accountants and detectives have a lot in common.

In fact, sometimes, accountants are detectives.

“Criminal investigators with the Internal Revenue Service – they’re accountants,” Riley says. “They’re also sworn law officers with the power to arrest. Most people don’t think of accountants that way.”

That discipline is known as forensic accounting, one of the programs offered by the Chambers College at both the graduate and undergraduate level. Forensic accountants comb through data to build evidence against criminals — like Al Capone, whose criminal empire fell when IRS investigators nailed him on five counts of tax evasion.

Forensic accounting students get special insight into this world through realistic case simulations, moot court sessions with law firm Steptoe & Johnson, and “prosecutor pitches” with actual IRS investigators.

“You’ve got accountants working for the federal government that chase criminal drug dealers by following the money,” Riley says. “There are others who analyze how greenhouse gases are impacting the economy.”

“But again, you can’t do any of the fun stuff until you’re well-accomplished at the nuts and bolts of being a good accountant.”

Now pause. Take a deep breath. It’s time for another thought experiment.

Imagine an accountant. What do you see?

Chambers College