The 2019 NYSSCPA Awards: Education Award Winner William Dresnack Keeps Students Focused on Practical Realities

By:
Chris Gaetano
Published Date:
May 13, 2019

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William H. Dresnack
, the 2019 winner of the Dr. Emanuel Saxe Outstanding CPA in Education award, did not initially set out to become a teacher. His career began in public accounting and then transitioned into private industry. He commented that his work in industry was “OK,” but not particularly interesting, and he longed for a change. But he wasn’t exactly sure in what direction he wanted to go: Another company? Another industry? Maybe a return to public accounting? Dresnack said the pivotal moment came when he decided to teach a class at the State University of New York at Brockport, as an adjunct professor.

“I just had so much fun and felt I was really doing something worthwhile, and the students seemed to enjoy working with me,” he said.

That was 30 years ago. Today, Dresnack is chair of the Finance & Accounting Department at Rochester Institute of Technology’s Saunders College of Business, where he helps prepare the next generation of CPAs. His teaching philosophy has a thoroughly practical bent. While subjects such as technical theory and the history of accounting are certainly interesting, Dresnack believes he cannot lose sight of why most students decide to pursue the profession in the first place: to get a job. To this end, early in his teaching career, he started a course called “The Accounting Profession,” which required students to wear business attire and network with practitioners. 

“I think most students get into accounting because they’re interested in job opportunities. I started teaching that course because I saw a lot of students who were flailing and didn’t know how to network or go about a job search or connect with accounting firms and figure out the direction they wanted to take their career. … So I decided to try to help them understand how to pursue that,” he said.

With the same goal of exposing students to the practicalities of the profession, he also founded the Rochester Chapter’s Career Opportunities in the Accounting Profession (COAP) program in 2003. COAP is the NYSSCPA’s multiday immersion program, held each June, that introduces high school students to accounting careers. Dresnack said he’d been reading about COAP programs in other parts of the state, and thought “it was a really neat program … and a good way to get students interested in accounting careers.” He had just become chair of the Department of Business and Economics at SUNY Brockport, which he said gave him the time to focus on the program. He formed the committee that developed the program, the members of which, he said, were highly motivated and invested in the effort. They were able to get the program started in just six months, through a great team effort.

During the same year, Dresnack was also involved in forming the Rochester Chapter’s World of Accounting program, a half-day-event that similarly encourages high school students to pursue careers in accounting. Although he was chapter president at the time, he stressed that there were many people involved in the program’s creation besides himself. He said that when he was in high school, he had no idea about all the different types of careers accountants can have. He wanted to expand students’ perceptions and teach them that it’s about more than just filing taxes.

“I think, even still, there’s this stereotypical view of accountants being kind of dull and boring people, and the accounting profession being a dull and boring profession,” he said. “That’s obviously not correct. The idea was let’s get more students interested.”

Dresnack’s influence is not just restricted to the classroom—in 2006, he was appointed to the New York State Board for Public Accountancy, where he served two five-year terms. This was during a time of major change for how accountants are certified in New York, as the state was in the process of transitioning from a 120- to a 150-semester-hour rule. While the state saw this shift as necessary, Dresnack, along with several other board members, raised concerns about the transition period. The change could be disruptive for college students who had been planning their career timelines around needing just 120 semester hours, which could possibly lead to a temporary shortage of CPA exam candidates. In response, the board’s Education Committee, which he was chairing at the time, offered a compromise: test at 120, license at 150. At first, Dresnack saw the plan as a measure specifically for shepherding the state through the transition to the new 150-hour rule, but since then, it has remained in the regulations. With time to reflect, he thought the 120/150 rule has had its good and bad parts.

“I know a lot of students who are glad to start getting the exam done before they even start practice,” he said. “But I don’t necessarily think that’s a good thing. I think a lot of practitioners expect students to finish the exam before they start [their careers], and I understand the perspective, but it gives students a lot of pressure to finish the exam before they even have their 150 hours done.” He concluded that, despite his reservations, “it has turned out to be, overall, a good move,” explaining, “I believe it helps students figure out whether and how they can pursue the exam and the license. It allows those who are very directed and motivated to try to get it done quickly, but allows others to defer the decision if they need to. Committing to 150 hours of college coursework and a 16-hour exam is a serious endeavor; flexibility in its timeline for the large pool of candidates and the many divergent backgrounds and resources is a significant benefit to the approach. Compare it to, for example, pursuing a law license. Candidates have to be all in, committing to three years of law school before even beginning the exam. The CPA licensure process allows students to pursue it in many different ways and according to many different timelines. They can work on the exam before even starting a graduate degree, to make sure it is what they want to do. And I have seen many students develop great confidence by nailing just one part of the exam, giving them a strong incentive to keep going on the exam and graduate study.”

Right now, Dresnack views the accounting profession as facing a period of rapid technological change, to the point where the CPA exam itself has to evolve to match the increasingly computerized nature of today’s accounting jobs. On the one hand, he said, “No doubt, it makes firms more efficient, and you know efficiency certainly helps the market for accounting services overall and the economy overall.” But on the other hand, he thinks it’s important to make sure that the public service ethos that undergirds the entire profession is not lost amid the drive for firms to tech up.

“I just hope the exam continues to emphasize elements of professional responsibility and legal responsibility in making sure anyone who becomes a CPA, especially in New York, understands that the technology or whatever other tools they’re using are about overall public trust and public responsibility,” he said.

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