Dordt College News

Beyond numbers

May 24, 2013

Beyond numbers

Shortly after graduating from Dordt, Beth (Vander Ziel, ’03) married Adam Blankespoor (’00) in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Over the next four years, Beth worked as an accounting analyst for JCPenney, served as an auditor at Ernst & Young, and earned a master’s degree in accounting at the University of Utah. Adam completed his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering at the University of Utah.

The Blankespoors moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, so Beth could pursue a Ph.D. in accounting at the University of Michigan. During their five years in Michigan, Adam worked as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Beth earned her Ph.D., and their son, Henry, was born—between Beth’s qualifying exams and dissertation research proposal.

Last summer they moved to Palo Alto, California, where Beth is now an assistant professor of accounting at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Adam stays home with Henry part-time and enjoys combining engineering and trips to the children’s museum. The Blankespoors are expecting their second child in June.

Beth Blankespoor is a teacher. Like most teachers, she has advice for students: Be aware of the world around you and think critically about current events; learn to communicate well; become technologically literate.

These recommendations cover more than Blankespoor’s area of expertise—accounting. And they demonstrate something about the way she approaches life, teaching, and research. She tries to see and understand the complexity and connectedness of God’s world and make a difference in her area of influence.

To her professors at Dordt, that approach sounds a lot like what Dordt’s curriculum is set up to help its graduates do.

Blankespoor chose to study accounting because she was interested in business, and “accounting is the language of business.”

“It provides a framework for thinking about how to measure economic performance. Its central focus is to identify economic ‘truth’ and convey it in a way that helps people make decisions about what path to take,” she says.

She is particularly interested in the way accounting and capital markets work together, specifically how firms communicate financial information.

“The whole message ends up being much more than just the numbers,” she says. 

Blankespoor’s research projects explore how economic practices relate to technology. She has looked at how firms use Twitter to get their information out to a broader audience. (“For those interested,” she says, “we find that firms who tweet information about an event do improve their market liquidity.”)

“It was actually Technology and Society, an engineering/computer science seminar at Dordt, that first made me aware that technology is value-laden. Since then, I’ve wanted to keep looking at how technology is subtly or not-so-subtly changing the way things are done.”

Blankespoor is also exploring whether accounting standards help represent economic performance truthfully. She would like to provide evidence that can help standard setters and regulators make good decisions. In one paper she examined whether fair value or adjusted historical cost measurement of financial instruments provides better information about a bank’s credit risk.

“The decision of how much fair value measurement to require is a controversial one that standard setters have been debating for years, and our paper provides one more piece of evidence for the conversation,” she says.

And, she is interested in looking at how a company’s reputation affects its economic activity by looking at how firms communicate their message and why investors believe them.

As she balances teaching and research, Blankespoor is glad that she spent several years working in the business world to make sure that she liked working in accounting and business. She found she did, but also learned that she “missed being able to follow her curiosity.”

“I enjoy academic life with its mix of learning, reflecting, running data, writing, communicating, teaching, and doing it all over again,” she says. “The more I’m in it, the more I realize that God led me to a field that uses my skills well and gives me a lot of joy.”

Teaching, whether formal or informal, is about communicating ideas and ways of thinking, according to Blankespoor.

“It’s a lot of fun. Preparing for class motivates me to think deeply about accounting topics and about the role of accounting in the economy.”

She also enjoys the communication that happens in the classroom. As students learn basic concepts, begin to understand tradeoffs and nuances, and see the importance and complexity of accounting, they often surprise her with their questions and ideas.

“One time I was leading a class discussion on the inherent discretion allowed in the accounting standards for foreign currency translation. My goal was to help the students see that while the flexibility in the standard helps firms convey the reality of their foreign operations, it also gives them an opportunity to manipulate or misrepresent their operations. Part way through the class, some students were expressing skepticism that the standards would be used to ‘massage’ earnings until one of the students volunteered a story of working at a firm where they did just that. Part of the joy of teaching comes from trying to communicate a concept and watching the tension resolve in unscripted learning by everyone.”

Blankespoor teaches primarily MBA students at Stanford University. Many have an accounting background, having worked as CPAs, in investment banks, or in some other accounting-intensive area.

“It makes for interesting class discussions because on any given topic, there is a student or two that has had extensive experience in the area and can bring relevant anecdotes and color to the conversation,” she says.

Many of her students have big plans for the future. She hopes she can help shape the way they approach these plans.

“I think there is a real need for Christian researchers to be working in the accounting field, using a Reformed worldview to help examine how firms and markets are interacting and how accounting affects that interaction. We can help guide firms, investors, and regulators in their decisions,” she says noting that accounting standards are set by people, people who face political pressures and people who have to find a balance between creating standards that are flexible enough to work but that aren’t too easily manipulated.

“Examining how these standards honor or dishonor God and his creation is important. There is definitely room to make a difference in accounting,” Blankespoor says.

“I was very excited when one of the banking regulators invited my coauthors and me to present one of our papers to them as they considered how best to set their regulations, and I have been encouraged by the interest of academics and the media in our paper on firms’ use of Twitter to communicate financial information,” she says.

She’s also encouraged when students in her classes gain a better understanding that accounting is a result of people making decisions that are often tradeoffs. She hopes they are motivated to become part of a bigger conversation and work to make accounting and financial statements better reflect economic reality.

Blankespoor knows that the daily challenges of finding and maintaining a good balance in being a professor, a wife, a mother, a friend, and a church member, and of understanding how her faith shapes each of these are real. And as a young faculty member, she’ll face getting tenure in the next few years. She knows there are no easy shortcuts in the life she’s chosen and been blessed with, but she loves it all.

“I have a lot to appreciate; I love my work, and I love spending time with my husband and son and laughing at their crazy antics,” she says. “I continue to see God’s grace in my life.”


On a Dordt education

I have spent time at four schools, and I have never been in another setting that challenged me to think so deeply about what it means to be a Christian and to be called to reform myself and the world. I was exposed to different ideas, professors, and challenges. In each class, professors incorporated a Reformed worldview and challenged us to recognize faith and God in what I came in wanting to classify as “just ordinary life.” I’ll never forget Professsor Marv Wielard exhorting us to display shalom in our computer programs, and I’ve heard the story from Adam again and again about Dr. Charles Adams’ first lecture of engineering in which he helped them realize that a chair was a creature of God.

The course that shaped me (and Adam) the most at Dordt was the engineering and computer science seminar, Technology and Society. Talking in depth about reformational frameworks and concepts inspired me to apply these ideas to my major in a specific way. It emphasized that we shape technology and that technology shapes us, and it helped spur my passion to examine the impact and implications of technology in accounting. I have fond memories of writing about the normative implications of email in the final paper for that class.

The combination of fellow-minded Christians learning to think critically, faculty who cared deeply, supported, and challenged me, and opportunities in and out of class to practice what we were being taught and learn how to interact with others helped me think about what God wanted me to do and be in life and how to start moving in that direction.

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