When the Enron scandal erupted in 2001, Tom Frecka knew he couldn’t let students graduate without a fundamental understanding of what happened and a solid grounding in ethics.
After all, the scandal took down not only the energy giant, but also gave a huge black eye to a profession that had always enjoyed a stellar reputation. A profession Frecka had dedicated his life to.
So even as the lawsuits and federal legislation began dismantling and reshaping accounting standards, Frecka took on the ethical issues at the heart of the matter in his own way: He established the Accounting Lyceum—a lecture series that focused on the issues of accounting fraud and the Enron scandal, which led to a three-credit course.
In essence, Frecka took a scandal that besmirched the reputation of a profession he loved and turned it into a teachable moment for the future generations of accountants.
That sort of no-excuses philosophy is a hallmark of Frecka’s teaching and leadership style. He could be tough, even gruff, favoring unvarnished truth over social niceties. “He’s a straight shooter,” says Fred Mittelstaedt, chair of the accounting department, who has known Frecka for 31 years, since Frecka chaired Mittelstaedt’s dissertation at the University of Illinois. “You don’t have to guess at where you stand with him.”
But tough as he may seem from the outside, Frecka—who retired from his position as Vincent and Rose Lizzadro Professor of Accountancy at the close of the academic year—could be considered a kind of guardian when it comes to Notre Dame’s accounting program and the business school. There’s a purpose to that gruffness. “He is a change agent,” says professor and Associate Dean Bill Nichols, who was teaching in the department when Frecka arrived in 1990. “Managing change is difficult. [Tom] has a vision and even though there are a lot of bumps in the roads in these visions, he just keeps pressing forward and pressing forward.”
The accounting department Frecka retired from is markedly different from the one he came to 23 years ago. Even before he arrived at Notre Dame from the University of Illinois where he’d spent the first 13 years of his career, Frecka knew that in order to stand up against the demands of the accountancy world, Notre Dame’s program needed an overhaul. “Tom was way ahead of the academic community,” says Nichols. “We were teaching content built around what was in the CPA exam. Tom arrived and said, ‘That’s not what you should be doing.’”
He was arriving only months after the Big 8 public accounting firms released a written report that accused accounting education programs of relying too much on rule-oriented and passive learning. As a result, in 1989, a group called the Accounting Education Change Commission was formed. Preparing students to pass the CPA was not enough of a goal for accountancy programs, according to the AECC, and when Frecka arrived at Mendoza, he had already been in the midst of preparing a joint proposal with the University of Illinois that laid out a plan to re-engineer the school’s undergraduate program. Out of the many proposals submitted to the AECC, the proposal was one of 10 selected. “The problems [accountants] face are complex and they needed more of a theoretical conceptual framework to deal with them,” says Frecka. The curriculum he helped put into place involved more active learning rather than using a straight lecture process.
A few years after the overhaul of the undergraduate program, the American Institute of CPAs passed a rule that beginning in 2000, required all accountants-in-training must have 150 hours of college education if they wanted to become CPAs. Frecka knew Notre Dame needed a master’s in accountancy program to help meet the demands of the marketplace. He set about developing the program’s 10 courses and in 1998, the first Master of Science in Accountancy (MSA) class was admitted.
While Frecka is most often the last one to leave the office at the end of the day, he is not the kind of academic who silos himself in the ivory tower. A year after launching the MSA program, Frecka was walking the campus with John Ferraro, then a vice chairman at Ernst & Young. The accounting firm had a problem on its hands. The stricter requirements placed on CPAs-in-training meant that there was a shortage of accountants in the industry. Frecka and Ferraro came up with a solution—a program called the Master of Science in Accountancy Program for Ernst & Young. Ernst & Young would send students to Notre Dame to earn their MSA. The program launched a year later, graduating 783 students over its 12-year run.
In recent years, the classes Frecka has developed and taught for Notre Dame haven’t had much to do with accounting at all. Six years ago, he approached Carolyn Woo, dean at the time, asking if she needed help with any projects. She did. For years, Woo had wanted to develop a new future-studies course that focused on the big picture issues affecting society. Frecka knew nothing about future studies, but took on the challenge nonetheless. He read everything on the topic that he could get his hands on, picking the brains of colleagues at other universities as he worked to build the pilot course.
Today, the class, Foresight in Business and Society, which focuses on larger challenges affecting the world, from issues of poverty to health care to freshwater access, is a core undergraduate business requirement. Each year, 700 juniors take the class, which is now taught by four different instructors.
But Foresight was not Frecka’s last undertaking outside accounting. During the past three years, he has served on the University’s Energy and Environmental Issues Committees and is responsible for developing two new minors in sustainability and energy. When asked by the dean to recruit someone to teach a new course called the Business of Energy, Frecka found no one who met his standards and decided to simply design and teach the class himself. “I really get excited about learning new things and focusing on new areas,” he says. “There are a lot of difficulties in doing that, but it’s very satisfying to develop a new course completely outside your area that’s never been taught.”
Frecka will tell you that his research took a backseat to his administrative responsibilities, yet his CV boasts of more than 50 academic papers on topics ranging from bribery and corruption to the efficacy of M.S. in Accountancy programs, to the relationship between research productivity and teaching effectiveness. His office is stuffed with books, filling four floor-to-ceiling cases, lining the top of the credenza and spilling over on to Frecka’s desk. Not just books about financial reporting and valuation, his main areas of accounting expertise, but books about forensic accounting, business foresight, the energy and power industries, accounting education, and many other topic areas. He considers them a testimony to an ever-learning, always active mind.
His work doesn’t stop at the business school. Frecka has served as a member of the Academic Council, the Faculty Board on Athletics, and the Notre Dame Task Force on Community Engagement. Outside of Notre Dame, he is active in his church and has served as a Stephen Minister, giving Christ-centered support and care to people experiencing a difficulty or loss in their life.
Now slowed a bit physically by Parkinson’s disease, he plans to continue teaching on a part-time basis “for as long as I’m able to contribute.”
Ask him what he is most proud of in his tenure at Notre Dame and, despite the numerous curricular overhauls and developments he’s spearheaded, he will tell you that it’s the talent he and others have recruited to Notre Dame over the years.
“There is a wonderfully dedicated cadre of people at Notre Dame who have a strong set of values and really believe in the mission of this University. It’s a great place, and it’s been my honor and privilege to be a part of it.”