Johnson Accounting Professor Wins National Teaching Award

Mark Nelson, “personal trainer” of accounting, stood out in national pool for excellence in teaching graduate business students

Johnson Accounting Professor Wins National Teaching Awardinline-block

Mark Nelson, the Eleanora and George Landew Professor of Accounting at Johnson at Cornell University, was named the first winner of The Cook Prize for excellence in teaching accounting at the graduate level.

The American Accounting Association (AAA) announced three inaugural winners of the prize for the categories of graduate, undergraduate, and two-year accounting degree programs on August, 10, 2015, at its annual meeting in Chicago. Each winner received a medal, a certificate, and a $25,000 award.

“The selection committee enthusiastically felt Mark stood out among a significant list of very well-deserving candidates, based on the criteria set forth,” said Michael A. Diamond, professor emeritus of the University of Southern California and convener of the AAA committee that selected the winners.

The award is named after J. Michael Cook, the former Chairman and CEO of Deloitte & Touche, LLP, who funded the prize with a $1 million endowment. It recognizes individuals who consistently demonstrate the attributes of a superior teacher in the discipline of accounting. Nelson, who has taught at Johnson for 25 years, was nominated for the honor by a group of accounting professors appointed by the AAA.

 “I was surprised to be nominated, and then I was surprised that I won,” Nelson said. “I think this highlights that the approach we take to teaching here at Johnson is a good one.”

Coauthor of Intermediate Accounting (McGraw-Hill/Irwin, 2016), Nelson has been recognized with numerous teaching awards at Johnson. He has received the MBA Apple Award for Teaching Excellence, conferred by the graduating two-year MBA class, five times. He is a three-time winner of the Russell Distinguished Teaching Award, given by the five-year reunion class to honor the professor who has had the greatest impact on their post-MBA careers.  His primary course, Intermediate Accounting, is highly rated by students, even though it is considered one of the most difficult classes in the MBA program.

 “My teaching metaphor is that I’m a personal trainer,” Nelson said. “My students hire me because of my expertise, so they aren’t in charge. Rather, they need to follow my program of somewhat painful exercises in order to get stronger and achieve their objectives. But we still have fun along the way."

Nelson teaches complex accounting principles, such as revenue recognition, deferred taxes, and pension reporting, by having students work through cases he develops from real-world financial statements. While discussing pension reporting, for example, he helps students understand accounting at Pitney Bowes, 3M, and Verizon at a level high enough to be able to reconstruct what companies must have done to create the financial statements included in published reports.

 “The goal is for students to not only understand the technical accounting, but also to be aware of how that can get distorted when companies choose to report aggressively,” Nelson said. “That perspective is very relevant as our students start their careers.”

Nelson credits several colleagues— particularly John Elliott, former accounting professor, and Professor Emeritus of Accounting Thomas Dyckman — with helping him develop his own teaching style when he first came to Cornell. He also co-taught for several years with Professor Emeritus of Accounting Robert Swieringa.

“To the extent that I’m an effective teacher, I owe a big debt to my colleagues here at Johnson, because they taught me a lot,” Nelson said. “It’s part of the culture here. It’s very collaborative.”

A native of Des Moines, Iowa, Nelson earned a bachelor's degree in accounting at Iowa State University and a doctorate in accounting at Ohio State University. He served as Johnson's Associate Dean for Academic Affairs, and also won several awards for his research. These include the AAA Notable Contributions Award and the AAA-Deloitte Wildman Medal.

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