Peter Brownell's short but distinguished career in academia was founded on undergraduate studies at the University of Melbourne (BCom, Hons) and graduate work at the University of California (Berkeley) (MBA, PhD). Having completed his doctorate he accepted an assistant professorship at the Sloan School of Management (MIT) but returned to Australia in 1983 as a senior lecturer at the Australian Graduate School of Management and later as Professor of Accounting at Macquarie University. In 1990 he was invited by the University of Melbourne to lead the Department of Accounting as the Arthur Andersen Professor of Accounting, subsequently Ernst and Young Professor of Accounting until his death in 1997. In a relatively short period Peter established himself as one of the leading international scholars in accounting, publishing more than a dozen times in prestigious journals including the Journal of Accounting Research, The Accounting Review and Accounting, Organizations and Society. His doctoral work at Berkeley considered the place of psychological perspectives in accounting information systems with particular focus on factors that influence the effectiveness of budget participation. In this work he was the first to use interaction terms to advance a contingency argument that the relationship between reliance on accounting performance measures (RAPM) and organisational effectiveness was dependent on budget participation. Further work considered the impact of motivation and role ambiguity together with how organisational contextual variables such as manufacturing technology, environmental factors and task characteristics influenced the effective use of accounting performance measures. His publication record stands testament to a commitment to the wider academy and willingness to work with others in the pursuit of knowledge and furthering understanding. Collaborations considered how budget participation influenced other individual level variables such as motivation and role ambiguity as well as how manufacturing technology, environmental factors and task characteristics influenced the use of accounting performance measures. At Macquarie and Melbourne Peter actively pursued the development of honours, masters and doctoral programmes focusing particularly on research methods. His thoughts on doctoral education particularly, paved the way for the development of leading doctoral programs in Australia. Peter also provided leadership as editor from 1991 to 1995 of Accounting and Finance, president of the Accounting Association of Australia and New Zealand from 1989 to 1990 and as a member of the editorial boards of several leading international accounting journals.His contribution to the academy also endures through the many students he supervised and the many junior and senior colleagues he mentored. He was larger than life, energetic and enthusiastic about research and the academic community. He voiced strong opinions but had finely tuned views as to how Australia could make a mark on accounting internationally.
The Australian Accounting Hall of Fame honours Peter Brownell as a researcher, author, mentor and champion of doctoral programmes in accounting.
Peter Brownell’s interest in academic life started when he completed BCom (Hons) in 1973 at the University of Melbourne. He then tutored for two years before leaving to undertake an MBA and doctorate at the University of California (Berkeley). He was one of a small group of young Australian accounting scholars at that time who took up the challenge of graduate work in the USA. Following completion of his doctorate he was appointed assistant professor at the Sloan School of Management at MIT. He returned to Australia in 1983 to a senior lectureship at the Australian Graduate School of Management and Faculty of Commerce at the University of New South Wales but moved soon after as a Professor of Accounting to Macquarie University. At the end of 1990 he returned to the University of Melbourne where he was appointed initially as Arthur Andersen Professor of Accounting and subsequently Ernst and Young Professor of Accounting until his death in 1997. Peter’s career as an academic was only 16 years but his contributions were and continue to be exceptional.
He became, in a relatively short period of time, one of the leading international scholars in accounting with his research published in prestigious journals. He was very productive with his first major publication appearing in The Accounting Review (TAR) in October 1981, followed in 1982 by four papers including one in a leading psychology journal. This level of productivity and publication continued throughout his career with a total of twelve publications in top journals. Over four years he published five times in the Journal of Accounting Research (JAR), three times in TAR, four times in Accounting, Organizations and Society (AOS) and once in the Journal of Accounting Literature – an outstanding record. A citation analysis undertaken prior to his death (Brown 1996) identified his work as a classic in the accounting literature, one of two Australians to be so recognised. This recognition is, at least in part, due to his careful and rigorous approach to research methods, no doubt stemming from his own doctoral training. His contribution to scholarship stemmed from his doctoral work which brought an individual psychological perspective to bear on the study of accounting information systems. His dissertation focused primarily on the individual factors which influence the effectiveness of budget participation. Two articles in TAR (Brownell 1981, 1982) which were among the first to provide broad-based empirical evidence on the role of budget participation, pioneered the use of regression equations with an interaction term. Although previously used in the economics and organisational behavioural literatures, this was the first time the technique had been used in an accounting context. Further publication of his doctoral work in JAR (Brownell 1982) explored the apparent discrepancy between the results of two leading accounting academics, Professors Anthony Hopwood and David Otley. Peter was one of the first to put forward a contingency argument that the relationship between reliance on accounting performance measures (RAPM) and organisational effectiveness was dependent on a third variable (in this case, budget participation). This was the start of a continuing stream of work which he, his doctoral students and numerous others were stimulated to follow. While Brownell’s early research made a major contribution to our understanding of the role of budget participation, he later collaborated with well-known academics on other research projects. He became interested in understanding how budget participation influenced other individual level variables such as motivation (TAR 1986 with McInnes) and role ambiguity (AOS 1988 with Chenhall [AAHoF 2014]), as well as understanding how organisational contextual variables such as manufacturing technology (JAR 1990 with Merchant), environmental factors (Accounting & Finance 1987) and task characteristics (JAR 1985; JAR 1986 with Hirst; AOS 1991 with Dunk; AOS 1997, 1999 with Abernethy) influenced the effective use of accounting performance measures.
When Peter moved to Macquarie one of his first innovations was to focus on expanding the ranks of honours, masters and doctoral programmes. He took over the Research Methods unit and then focused on the existing staff, reportedly advising senior lecturers that “none of you guys get [promotion to] Associate Professor until you get a PhD. Enrol today if you want to be ass pros”. He was ahead of his time and his thoughts on doctoral education paved the way for the development of leading doctoral programs in Australia. He also demonstrated leadership through consulting links developed while at Macquarie that led to PwC funding a Chair in Professional Accounting.
His move to the University of Melbourne came at very challenging times. He was head of department for three years and made a significant difference through the recruitment of leading scholars and changing the research culture in the process. He began to have a significant impact on research higher degree training in the department again signaling to faculty that a doctorate was a minimum to succeed as an academic. His first strategic plan articulated his vision of what it would take to develop a world-class department of accounting. As part of this vision he introduced a seminar and visiting-scholar program to increase visibility in Australia and internationally.
He was the first to actively seek sponsorship from the accounting firms to facilitate salary loadings necessary to attract leading scholars, successful in doing so in part because of his strong connections with downtown. Peter’s leadership was also felt while he was editor from 1991 to 1995 of Accounting and Finance, the journal of the then Accounting Association of Australia and New Zealand. Peter also served as president of the Association from 1989 to 1990 and made significant additional contributions through his editorial activities serving on editorial boards of several leading international accounting journals including TAR; AOS; Abacus; Behavioural Research in Accounting; Management Accounting Research; Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal and Accounting and Finance.
Peter’s contribution to the academy endures today through the many students he supervised and the many junior and senior colleagues he mentored. He was an excellent mentor to junior staff and encouraged all to share their work, to present their papers among colleagues and to aim for excellence. Perhaps one of his best qualities was that he took pride in his colleagues’ success - almost shouting from the roof top when they succeeded. His teaching specialty was research methods and he excelled in executive education and developed and taught courses for the leading corporates in Australia.
Peter Brownell was larger than life, energetic and enthusiastic about research and the academic community. While he voiced strong opinions and held strong views as to what it took to succeed as an academic, he listened to others and enjoyed debating how best to achieve this. His vision for Australia to make a mark on accounting internationally was finely tuned. He led the change and had the courage to implement it despite considerable opposition. Through his enormous commitment to capacity building both through doctoral programs in Australia and in his support for junior staff, his vision is long-lasting.