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Accounting Professor Allan Drebin retires

Over a four-decade career, Drebin solved problems and challenged the status quo

  Allan Drebin
  Photo © Evanston Photographic Studios

At age 73, Allan Drebin can regale a listener for hours with his trademark sense of humor, deftly interspersed with recollections of his pioneering accomplishments.

The veteran Kellogg professor created an undergraduate accounting course, developed a then-unique budget for the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and created the idea for Northwestern University's residential college of commerce and industry.

"I'm not just a numbers person," Drebin says. "In accounting, you deal with people and work on real problems."

After a four-decade career at the Kellogg School, including four years as chairman of the Accounting Information & Management Department, Drebin announced his retirement in May. He will continue to work as a consultant and serve as treasurer of the Elizabeth F. Cheney Foundation, and will teach some accounting courses at Northwestern University's McCormick School of Engineering and School of Continuing Studies.

Ronald Dye, current chairman of the department, noted Drebin's broad contributions across the accounting field.   

"Allan has wide-ranging intellectual interests, and he has published in multiple areas of accounting, including managerial and financial accounting and accounting for nonprofit organizations, as well as accounting for banks," Dye says. "He has been a well-respected colleague in the Kellogg Accounting Department for 40 years."

But Drebin brought more to the table than his contributions to the accounting field. He has served on the boards of a variety of professional and civic organizations, including the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Evanston Arts Council, the Hubbard Street Dance Company and the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center.

In 2001, he ran a spirited race for the Evanston City Council, losing by just 57 votes. And in 1992, he was decorated in Thailand after playing a key role in an international cause célèbre.

The incident involved a lintel — a carved piece of stone depicting the reclining god Vishnu — that had been bought decades earlier by an art collector and donated to the Art Institute of Chicago. The item had adorned the entryway of a Hindu temple in the northeast part of the country, and the Thais wanted it back.

Drebin learned of the controversy while teaching in a Kellogg-sponsored program at the Sasin Graduate Institute of Business Administration at Chulalongkorn University. The Thai students asked Drebin how he could tolerate the Art Institute's possession of the piece. Upon reflection, Drebin realized a compromise could be reached. He proposed that the lintel be returned to Thailand, and that the Art Institute be given a different artifact in its place.

Though initially rejected, Drebin's idea won out after the controversy refused to die. United Airlines donated a flight to return the one-ton lintel, and huge crowds celebrated its return. A reporter for the Bangkok Post tracked down Drebin, who had preferred to remain anonymous, and told the story of the American who rescued the treasured piece. For his role in resolving the stir, the Kellogg professor received the Royal Declaration of Commander of the Most Noble Order of the Crown of Thailand.

Even upon retirement, Drebin continues to take pride in challenging existing policies and questioning authority.

"A lot of accounting professors — not at Kellogg — never talk about what should be," Drebin says. "They just say, 'Here are the rules.'

"I say, 'Don't just accept that. We challenge the authority. Otherwise, there would be no need for research.'"

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