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Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Dr. Tonya K. Flesher, Professor Emerita of Accountancy

*Editor’s Note: The latest installment in the Ole Miss Retirees features is Dr. Tonya K. Flesher, Professor Emerita of Accountancy. The organization’s mission is to enable all of the university’s faculty and staff retirees to maintain and promote a close association with the university. It is the goal of the Ole Miss Faculty/Staff Retirees Association to maintain communication by providing opportunities to attend and participate in events and presentations.

Dean Tonya K. Flesher.

Dean Tonya K. Flesher has had an amazing career. She is in truth an amazing woman—a trailblazer in her chosen field of accounting as well as an incredible role model for her students, especially the female students. Her Ole Miss story includes hard work in a male-dominated profession and the challenges and distinction of being the University’s first female dean.

Brown: Where did you grow up? What is special about the place you grew up? Please talk about your childhood. Please tell us about your parents, siblings, and any crazy aunts and uncles.

Flesher: I was born and raised in Kokomo, Indiana, which is north of Indianapolis and was dominated by the auto industry when I lived there. I was an only child who married an only child. Skeptics said that a marriage between two “spoiled” only children might not survive. My husband, Dale, and I have been married for over 49 years, so perhaps there is a chance the marriage will last. Being only children, our children have no aunts or uncles or cousins, as both of us experienced growing up.

Tonya and Dale Flesher.

Brown: What were your favorite subjects in school and why?

Flesher: In elementary and high school my favorite subjects were math and history. In college, history and accounting became my favorites.

Brown: Where did you go to school?

Flesher: I received an undergraduate degree from Ball State University with a major in history and minors in business and library science. For the business minor, I was required to take a year of accounting courses. After completing the first course, the professor asked me to be his grader. That job caused me to meet my future husband and eventually find my career path. Dale was an instructor of accounting whose office was across the hall from where I graded papers. The professor I worked for jokingly said that I should be granted a degree in accounting because in my work for him I had graded for almost all of the required courses for a degree. I took this as a joke because I knew of only one female who was majoring in accounting. Strangely, the aptitude test that I had taken in high school indicated that I should be an accountant, but I didn’t even know what that was and there were very few women in the profession at that time.

After marrying and receiving my degree, I needed to find a job because Dale was entering the Ph.D. program in accounting at the University of Cincinnati (UC). All of the schools to which I applied responded that either there were no openings because it was in the midst of an economic recession or that they were looking to hire someone to teach history who could also coach football. Dale attended a tax conference sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and heard that the IRS was hiring tax auditors. Since only a year of accounting education was required, I applied and was hired. The IRS would pay for one course a semester and so I enrolled in accounting classes at the University of Cincinnati with the hope of earning an accounting degree.

Before I could finish the accounting program at UC, Dale was hired as a professor of accounting at Appalachian State University and we moved to Boone, North Carolina. I finished the requirements for a master’s degree in accounting while working part-time for a CPA firm. Upon graduation, I was hired as an instructor. After teaching for two years, I realized that I would need a Ph.D. in accounting. Dale was hired at Ole Miss and I completed my doctoral degree and was hired as an accountancy faculty member.

Brown: What school activities and sports did you participate in?

Flesher: My father was a baseball player and coach and I loved to play baseball in my backyard. I regret that there were no sports available for girls when I was in school. To make up for that, I joined almost every club that was available. In college, I took a course in tennis and played off and on for many years.

Brown: Who influenced you in your early life?

Flesher: My mother was the primary influence in my life and continued to be a guiding force for as long as she lived. She was my cheerleader, guide, and friend. My parents, Jim and Gwen Maloney, adopted me when I was a baby. They worked hard and sacrificed so that I could have advantages they never had. I admire them tremendously for how much they advanced in their lifetimes.

They moved to Oxford to take care of our family. They provided childcare that enabled me to continue doing what I loved to do. Their help was crucial when I was being treated for breast cancer when our daughter was two and our son was thirteen and when I had a recurrence the next year. Our children benefited from the love and attention they received from them. Their years in Oxford were probably the happiest in their lives, as they enjoyed their church, friends, and family. My father loved to fish in area lakes and my mother looked forward to her weekly visits to the beauty shop.

Brown: What did you want to be when you were a kid?

Flesher: Girls of my era were pretty much told that you could be a teacher or a nurse. I did not like science, so I thought that teaching was my only alternative.

Brown: Describe yourself as a young adult.

Flesher: Driven.

Brown: What was your first job?

Flesher: At the age of 15, I was selected to be on the J.C. Penney High School Fashion Board. Board members were paid to model in fashion shows and work in the store in the local mall. I worked there throughout high school and on breaks from college.

Brown: Did you have a mentor who influenced your career choice?

Flesher: My husband, Dale, has been my mentor and has encouraged me throughout my career. Dr. Charles Taylor was my dissertation director and was supportive.

Brown: Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began? Who hired you? How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Flesher: When I was looking for a doctoral program, Dale and I attended an accounting conference and met an Ole Miss alum who spoke so highly of his experience that I applied to the doctoral program and Dale applied for a faculty position. We expected to stay only until I finished my degree, but were happy and stayed.
I taught as a doctoral student for two years and a faculty member for 38 years before I retired in May of 2017.

Brown: What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?

Flesher: The Accounting Department Chair at Appalachian State, Dr. Albert Craven, who hired me, had taught at Ole Miss and we knew very little other than what he told us. We had never been to Oxford or Mississippi.

Brown: You were the first female to serve as Dean at Ole Miss and served in this capacity from 1987-93. Please tell us about this experience.

Flesher: Not only was I the first female Dean but also the first and so far only one to have a baby while Dean! My time as Dean was one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I thoroughly enjoyed trying to help students, faculty, and staff in the School to achieve their goals. Meeting and getting to know accounting alumni counted as an added bonus. However, I have to say that being the first female Dean was not without its difficulties.

Dean Tonya Flesher in her office, 1988. Photo provided.

Brown: What were the positive aspects of being Dean of the School of Accountancy?

Flesher: Accountancy students are among the best at the University and it was a joy to see them achieve their dreams and become successful in their careers. The accounting faculty were dedicated to seeing the separate School of Accountancy achieve its mission as a professional school and it was rewarding to work with them to see the school become one of the top accounting programs in the country. Accounting alumni and accounting firms have also been instrumental in the tremendous success of the School.

The Patterson School of Accountancy is the only completely separate accredited School of Accountancy in the United States. This distinction brought the program to national prominence and led to the major donation that resulted in the naming of the School for E.H. Patterson and the establishment of the AICPA Library. The accounting resources in the University of Mississippi’s library are the largest in the world. I was the first faculty member hired after the Department of Accounting separated from the Business School and the second Dean of the School.

Brown: What were some of the more challenging aspects of being Dean of the School of Accountancy?

Flesher: In a word—money! I served during a time when the University was suffering severe budgetary woes. There was almost no funding for raises and the School was always short of operating funds. At the end of each year we worried that we wouldn’t have enough paper to print final exams or that the telephones would be disconnected.

Brown: You received the Elsie M. Hood Outstanding Teacher of the Year in 2003. Please tell us what this award meant to you.

Flesher: The Elsie Hood Award is by far the highlight of my career! Teaching has been the most important aspect of my career as a professor and to earn the highest teaching award at the University was most rewarding.

Brown: I read that you are a Past President of the Academy of Accounting Historians. Tell us about your role as President and this organization.

Flesher: With a degree in and love for history, much of my research has been focused on accounting and tax history. The Academy of Accounting Historians is an international organization for those who share this interest in accounting history and I was honored to have been selected as its President. The Academy also established the Tax History Research Center housed at the University of Mississippi and I served as its director. It is the most complete archive of tax history materials in the United States.

Brown: If you could receive an unrestricted, unlimited grant to complete one project, what would that project be?

Flesher: I would investigate better methods of instructing and assessing students in tax courses.

Brown: What were some of the turning points in your life?

Flesher: As for most people, having children. Our son, Flyn, was our first child and our daughter, Felicity, was born eleven years later. We say that we are both only children and that we had “two only children” because of the difference in their ages. Our children have been the highlights of my life. Flyn is a graduate of Rice University and has a law degree from the College of William and Mary. Flyn’s wife, Katie, also holds a law degree from the College of William and Mary. He is an attorney who lives with his wife and two children in Oxford. Since graduating from Carleton College, Felicity has been working as an assistant for television and movie writers and lives in Los Angeles.

Niagara Falls with family. Photo provided.

Brown: What’s your favorite way to waste time?

Flesher: Watching British mystery TV shows.

Brown: What has been your routine since retirement? Do you have any hobbies?

Flesher: My routine is to do a walking meditation, yoga, and jogging three or four miles every morning. While I jog and do routine chores around the house, I listen to audiobooks. I babysit regularly for our two grandchildren. I continue to do some volunteer work for accounting organizations and work on a few research projects.

Brown: What remains on your bucket list?

Flesher: My favorite author is Louise Penny, who writes mysteries that are centered around Quebec, and I would like to visit the places that she writes about.
I am lacking about five states in order to have been to all fifty, so I might try to reach that goal.

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