Recently, while riding my usual commuter train, I noticed the gentlemen seated next to me reading a copy of “The Trusted Professional,” a publication put out by the New York State Society of CPAs. Eschewing my usual 30-minute catnap, I quickly introduced myself and asked if he read Accounting Today.

“That’s the big magazine with the green letters right?” he queried. Obviously, he wasn’t part of our core readership. Turns out he was a sole practitioner, insulated by choice from the machinations of the profession on the national level and, admittedly, was only a member of the American Institute of CPAs because of the insurance benefits.

To my amazement, he’d never heard of AICPA president Barry Melancon, nor current chairman Scott Voynich. He neither knew nor cared about the institute’s online portal, CPA2Biz, and had only a passing familiarity with well-publicized but failed initiatives like the global credential.

Does someone sense a problem here?

When I’ve regaled folks in the profession with this train tale, they’ve told me that this scenario was, unfortunately, not atypical. As one cynic put it, they don’t have a “no CPA left behind” policy at 1211 Avenue of the Americas.

Now to be fair, you can hardly expect an organization with roughly 350,000 members to send each one a personalized holiday card with updates on institute initiatives. And again, in the spirit of fairness, it’s also incumbent upon members who pay dues to an organization to at least make an attempt to discern what’s going on or to become active if they feel change is necessary.

Still, does the scenario of my train companion reflect a wider problem with the institute and the members of the profession in general?

I’m no sociologist, but I’d have to answer in the affirmative. As an impartial observer, I feel there’s plenty of blame to go around for any lack of cohesion within the ranks.

Should the institute receive deserved catcalls for adopting something of a bunker mentality of late, perhaps at the expense of its members? Or spending millions on ill-fated projects while conspicuously abandoning the core services that brought them to the dance in the first place?

Do the many dissident CPA groups with their own Web sites who urge a wholesale leadership change at 1211 make cogent points for reform, or are they a scattered group of malcontents enamored with throwing rocks?

I would answer “yes” in part to all of the above.

Now, don’t despair, this is not going to be one of those group-hug type columns, where I urge everyone to get along. In fact, I feel it’s better when opposing factions come together on an issue and theoretically meet somewhere in the middle.

In 2004, there will be no shortage of critical issues raining down on the profession — the continued fallout from Sarbanes-Oxley, Big GAAP vs. Little GAAP, a projected increase in mergers, the fallout over tax shelters and that next inevitable accounting scandal, to name just a few.

And while some of these carry serious consequences, none could be worse than a membership that isn’t informed or — because of too many sideline projects by its leadership or infighting — has no desire to be.

Bill Carlino

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