Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of profiles highlighting the diverse interests and careers of VSCPA members. Know a member (including yourself) who would make for an interesting profile? Email VSCPA Communications Manager Chip Knighton.
Molly Brown, CPA, started her professional career as a small-business owner — accounting wasn’t in the picture. Now she’s charged with helping her employer maintain and build upon its stellar record with accounting graduates.
Brown is an accounting instructor and associate dean for undergraduate programs in the James Madison University (JMU) College of Business in Harrisonburg. In recent years, JMU has become one of the top universities in the country in terms of CPA Exam pass rate, and the Dukes claimed the top spot in the national rankings in 2010 and 2015. To hear Brown tell it, those results have turned into a kind of virtuous cycle.
“It is self-sustaining,” she said. “We view it as our students are our brand. We do have a rigorous program because we want students to perform well when they get into the job market. They are the best advertisement for the program.”
JMU’s CPA Exam success is fitting for Brown given the way she treated her career change. She owned a small frame shop and gallery in Springfield, then moved back to the Shenandoah Valley to return to school at JMU, where she had obtained her bachelor’s degree. Her initial plan was just to take enough accounting classes to sit for the Exam, but it didn’t take long for her to decide to stay for a master’s.
After she graduated, she took a job working in the field for the Virginia Auditor of Public Accounts, where one of her audits was JMU. While she was on campus for the audit, she was approached about becoming an adjunct professor at the school. She couldn’t take the job then for obvious reasons, but the seed was planted, and she soon took a finance job at Blue Ridge Community College in Weyers Cave, freeing her up to begin her teaching career in earnest.
In 2002, Brown accepted a full-time instructor appointment at JMU. As an instructor without a Ph.D., she’s not on the tenure track, but she’s made herself essential to the business school in other ways. She’s been an associate dean for four years, focusing primarily on student activities outside the classroom — notably helping develop the business school’s center for experiential learning.
“I love helping students who have a real talent for accounting discover that talent and encouraging them to pursue a career in accounting,” she said. “Oftentimes, a student would take my course as a sophomore and not be really sure what they wanted to do. As a business major, it would be their first accounting course, and I was able to encourage them to pursue a degree in accounting.”
A lot of Brown’s work, both in the classroom and as associate dean, focuses on getting students ready to be professional accountants. That includes both technical and softer skills, and she takes great pride in JMU’s ability to deliver on both fronts.
“Career readiness in accounting does mean a certain level of professionalism, but it also means having the skills necessary to be a successful professional,” she said. “In accounting, a lot of that happens in the classroom.
“I would say that at JMU, we are unapologetic about the level of rigor in our program. We want students who can succeed once they leave the university. And that’s proven to be beneficial for all of our students, because employers recognize that. They have an idea of who they are hiring when they hire a JMU graduate in accounting and can have certain expectations of our ability.”
Once students are in the pipeline, professors work hard to identify the ones who have an aptitude for accounting and encourage them to continue in the program. Top students from the freshman financial accounting class are invited to a banquet each year, attended by the accounting faculty, members of the school’s accounting advisory board, partners at firms that hire at JMU and seniors who receive scholarships for the master’s program. It’s a way for the university to help give promising students an extra push to consider an accounting major.
It’s all part of JMU’s focus on introductory classes as a way to identify the students who have what it takes to succeed and get them excited about the profession.
“I cannot underestimate the importance of those introductory accounting classes,” Brown said. “I think school should put some of their best faculty members into those introductory classes. That’s what’s going to excite a student about accounting in those first two semesters. If they can have a really great experience in that course, it’s going to make them more interested in majoring in accounting.”
The final piece of JMU’s focus on the accounting life cycle is its CPA Boot Camp. This summer program is aimed at recent graduates of the university’s master’s program and consists of a condensed CPA review course taught by JMU accounting faculty. Students attend a review course four days a week and spend the other three studying, and most will have completed the entire CPA Exam before they join their employers in the fall.
“That really helps our students stand out,” Brown said. “A new hire who has already sat for and most likely passed all four parts of the Exam is more valuable to their employer than one who hasn’t even started reviewing for it, so it really helps jump-start their career.”
Brown, who is married with two grown children, stays busy year-round. She has been one of the instructors for CPA Boot Camp and works on the side as an essay scorer for the CPA Exam. She has remained a practicing CPA throughout her teaching career, doing tax work for a small group of nonprofit clients.
As mentioned before, she also works on out-of-classroom activities for students, and she has another responsibility at JMU that comes with some pretty unique benefits — she’s the director of the school’s Semester in Antwerp program, meaning she takes frequent trips to Belgium to work with those students.
She’s also been heavily involved with the VSCPA, serving as an officer with the Society’s Blue Ridge Chapter and as a nominating educator for the Leaders’ Institute. In addition, she’s been an instructor for the VSCPA’s Virginia-specific Ethics course since its inception. Her commitment to continuous learning is part of her dedication to protecting the health of the CPA profession.
“You never stop learning,” she said. “In a profession like accounting, it’s so important to never stop learning and keep your skills up to date.”