The Legend of Katherine Schipper

From the moment that first FedEx package arrived, the legend of Katherine Schipper was born. Brilliant, poised, and surprisingly hilarious, her tiny frame packs a magnanimous presence. She is intimidatingly confident – comfortable in her own skin. She quotes US GAAP and IFRS rules chapter and verse.

A quick Google search reveals her standing as the only woman in the Accounting Hall of Fame (who knew there was one?), her stint on FASB, and her Wikipedia entry. In the click of a button, you can find a cacophony of awards, papers, nods, and general fuel for the legendary fire.

The whispers grew louder when we arrived in London: she was the woman who brought down Enron (which was never confirmed by her) and that she handed over a crystal ball position paper in 2004 on how mortgage-backed securities would cause a financial meltdown. She didn’t confirm that one either, but her buddy James Leisenring from the IASB did in his private lecture to us. She is humble and often deflects questions about her legend. Her face turned bright red and she quickly cursed Google when we called her out on her fame. She doesn’t go by “doctor” and in fact, you won’t see PhD written anywhere on anything she gave us. I can understand though, since I’d be ashamed to admit I went to Chicago too (Go Duke!).

The administrators don’t say much. She is well liked personally and professionally by her peers; that is unmistakable. But, when asked about her, they smile and vaguely answer – almost as if to say she is a force that can only be experienced rather than a person that can be explained. Blair Sheppard, at our welcome dinner, simply remarked, “she’s tough, but you’ll learn accounting.”  He was right.

What is remarkable about Katherine Schipper is not her epic list of accomplishments – though she has them. It is not her brilliant command of the repercussions of financial reporting to a company, an economy, and an individual – though it is world-class. What you notice about this maven, into whose fire you are thrown, is that she actually cares about you and this information. I am the textbook definition of retarded in accounting. Literally, I am dyslexic. I escaped my two undergrad jaunts only by swearing to hire a CPA and never touch the subject again. I am simply too dangerous with patterns and numbers to be trusted with accounting.

Regardless, the Schipp expects more. She is funny but doesn’t joke about the implications of well-schooled, integrous graduates. She won’t negotiate on the reality that as executives, our signatures and reputations will be tied to financial statements one day – and if we don’t know the details, we won’t be able to find the devil in them. She preaches about the fact that real people make real decisions from these pages and that a savvy eye in reading the nuances is critical. I made what I thought was a very funny joke on my final (after 15 hours you are very amused by everything). She didn’t laugh. (I still think it’s funny).

Dean Sheppard was right. I learned accounting. Do I still mix up journal entries? Absolutely! Am I going to hire a trustworthy and competent CPA? Oh yes! But do I appreciate and respect the discipline and value of good accountancy? Without a doubt. I shocked even myself when I uttered, “I actually like accounting”…

Books don’t teach that – they can’t. But Katherine Schipper does – so be ready.

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6 comments to The Legend of Katherine Schipper

  • Syed Husain

    I will always remember her response to your comment about her sense of humor during that last review session :)

  • Sarah Johnston

    what did she say? i don’t even remember it, i just remember her stare!!

  • Syed Husain

    You told her you liked her sense of humor and her response was you needed to get out more.

  • Suresh Subasinghe

    I was just reminiscing about that first semester in London, after 1 year. Sarah, your post just brought back all those memories :) Thanks!

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    [...] back, I was scrambling for accounting papers lying all over the hotel room, trying to make it to Prof. Katherine Schipper‘s midterm exam. And leading to that was 14 days of non-stop data deluge with class lectures, [...]

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