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Crawfords retiring after shepherding 100 students through MAC program

by Luanne Williams

Donna Crawford was one of the first students to graduate from Wingate with a master of accounting degree. It was 2011. Shortly thereafter she became the program’s learning and assessment coordinator. Now, 100 graduates and 7,000 homemade muffins later, she and her husband, who helped birth the program, plan to retire. The pair will leave behind a legacy of academic rigor and personal encouragement.

Tom Crawford speaks at a MAC hooding ceremony.

“It has been a great experience,” says Dr. Tom Crawford, professor of accounting, economics and finance. “We’ve had a wonderful time at Wingate, and we’ll definitely miss the time with students.”

Even better, “we found out that we can work together, and our marriage survived it,” he says.

The two will continue to labor side-by-side in their investment business, with him as strategist and her handling compliance issues and meeting with clients. But between now and the end of summer school, they’ll keep their focus on students – what they need to thrive in the world of accounting and exactly how Wingate’s program can deliver it.

Tom Crawford spent a year as a Wingate student in the early 1970s and returned as an assistant professor in 1988. He was involved in drafting the University’s Southern Association of Colleges and Schools accreditation submission for the MBA program and then began work developing a finance major. In the early 2000s he left Wingate, taught at Catawba College for three years and spent time growing his investment practice. When he rejoined the Bulldog faculty in 2008, he and colleague Bob Threatt began to assess the accounting program. They wanted to see how it could better prepare students for life beyond the classroom.

What they came up with was a one-year master’s program aimed at equipping students to not only pass their Certified Public Accountant exam but to excel in their careers. Because they made the curriculum challenging, they knew many students would need individualized attention to get up to speed and plenty of practice to master high-level concepts. Enter Donna Crawford and the MAC lab.

“One of my roles was to help the professors who were developing the curricula figure out what was working or not, based on student feedback,” she says. “I’d go to them saying, ‘The students are not understanding this. How can we change this to help?’ And we’d make changes.”

Donna Crawford helps a MAC graduate prepare for the hooding ceremony.

come from a human resources background before taking the accounting prerequisites and diving headlong into the master’s program, Donna Crawford had plenty of real-world experience to share with students and also a fresh perspective to offer professors who were building the program from scratch.

“I was the guinea pig,” she says. 

To help identify gaps in students’ knowledge, the professors developed four review exams that students now take during the first four weeks of the program. Then Donna gets busy helping students get up to speed, whether through individualized review or retaking a MAC prerequisite.

“If you are missing pieces in your background, the advanced material that the master of accounting involves is difficult, or really impossible, to teach,” Tom Crawford says. “We wouldn’t have had nearly so many students complete the program were it not for the summer prerequisite work.”

To further challenge students to make real-world connections with what they were learning in class, he helped MAC students Issam Zeraidi and Roman Kanyuka start the Wingate Investment Club, an equity long-only fund with a focus on mid- and small-cap stocks. Open to both undergrad and graduate students regardless of major, the club began with Sunday evening meetings where members learned investment basics and various methods of evaluating a company’s health and future prospects. Tom Crawford helped them manage a $183,000 fund provided by an anonymous supporter.

“The unnamed party retains ownership and we are responsible to them,” the professor explains.

Professor and group of eight students at a conference.

“We wanted to make sure everyone understood a balance sheet, an income statement, price/earnings ratio … and that they see how to apply what they’re learning in accounting class to investing,” Zeraidi says.

They often had members research companies and bring their findings to the next meeting. When students came in sold on a company they had heard about or a product they believed in, Tom Crawford and club leaders helped them examine the firm’s merits objectively. Lively debate was welcome as they used analysis tools they’d developed to determine whether a stock was over- or under-valued, and then decided whether it was a fit for the club’s portfolio.

“Our goal was to provide members with education, mentoring and preparation for careers in the investment industry,” Kanyuka says. He and Zeraidi said the club created opportunities for students to pick up additional skills and to identify and address personal weaknesses.

Always about the students

The Crawfords’ student-focused teamwork has not gone unnoticed.

“You knew they were always on your side and wanted you to be successful,” says Lizzy Underwood, a senior financial analyst at Duke Energy and a 2012 MAC alum. “Even though Dr. C liked to throw some difficult tasks and questions your way, you knew they would only make you more informed for the future curveballs.”

She says the program prepared her for the CPA exam and gave her critical-thinking and relationship-building skills essential in today’s work environment.

Victoria Best, who will graduate with a master’s in accounting this year, describes the Crawfords as “very supportive and encouraging.”

“They had high expectations for me and pushed me to reach my potential,” says Best, who works for Grant Thornton, a tax, audit and advisory firm in Charlotte.

For years, those high expectations for Wingate students have been the dinnertime or drive-time topic of conversation for the Crawfords.

“Every day, we talk about this student needs to work on those skills and another student needs this or that,” Donna says. “We’ll talk about how we can make the lab most effective that day.”

“We’re driving somewhere for a weekend trip and the conversation was always around school,” Tom says. “Sometimes students would be scared of me, but they would ask Donna questions, so she would help me assess where they were. We’re a good team that way.”

He said the frequent assessment and tweaking of the program has paid off. “We’ve seen the success of our grads,” he says. “I’m confident that they have good backgrounds, not just to get entry-level jobs, but to succeed in getting promoted.” 

Tom keeps track of graduates and regularly shares their success with the accounting faculty and staff. Alumni include Bank of America vice presidents and accountants at the “Big Four” (Deloitte, PricewaterhouseCoopers, KPMG, and Ernst & Young). 

“This year, we’ll have our 100th student graduating,” Tom says. “That seemed to be a good time to retire.”

And as for the 7,000 muffins? That’s been Donna’s Tuesday tradition, bringing homemade muffins for the class. By her husband’s account she’s baked more than 7,000 over the years, starting with a dozen each week, but in recent years upping it to two dozen, including two vegan muffins for Threatt, who died last year.

“We’ve always had MAC muffins every Tuesday,” Tom says. 

And what will happen at summer’s end when the Crawfords retire? They’re confident their colleagues will fill the gap, supplying students with plenty of academic rigor, personalized attention and sustaining snacks.

“I guarantee Scott Lail (assistant professor of accounting) will take care of them,” Donna says. “He goes to Costco and brings back all kinds of stuff. There were days that I would have muffins and he would have Krispy Kreme donuts. He will carry on the tradition.”

May 20, 2020

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