Professor George Plesko, the head of the accounting department, a beloved mentor, and a researcher whose work changed IRS policies, has been honored as the top tax educator in the nation.
The 2022 Ray M. Sommerfeld Outstanding Tax Educator Award, a prestigious award from the American Taxation Association, is given to a faculty member with a distinguished career and outstanding contributions to teaching, curriculum development, service, participation in professional activities, and academic research.
Plesko is the third UConn accounting professor to receive the esteemed award, tying UConn with the University of Texas at Austin for the most lifetime achievement recipients.
In numerous letters of recommendations, colleagues and former students praised Plesko’s kindness, generosity, intellect, research prowess, commitment to his students –and even his homemade risotto.
Rare Combination of Smart, Kind
Alumna Erin Henry ’14 Ph.D., now an assistant professor of accounting at the University of Arkansas, said Plesko has served many roles in her career, ranging from her dissertation chair to her advocate in seeking jobs, promotions, and tenure.
“George is a very rare combination of smart and kind,” she wrote in a nomination letter. “Anyone who meets George can immediately see that he possesses a shocking amount of ‘mental horsepower,’ that allows him to think through incredibly complex topics in an instant and without advance preparation.”
Among Ph.D. candidates and young faculty, he is known for his supportiveness, introducing them to his friends and colleagues at the top of the profession. He can be fiercely protective of his students, but never coddles them, she said.
Research Forever Changed IRS Policy
Plesko earned a Ph.D. in economics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and worked for the U.S. Department of Treasury for several years before taking on a succession of faculty positions at Northeastern University, MIT, and as a visiting professor at Harvard, joining UConn in 2005. He has led the accounting program for the last eight years, and previously served a four-year term as an associate dean for business graduate programs and research.
The same year that Plesko joined the faculty, he co-authored a paper with Lillian Mills titled “Bridging the Reporting Gap: A Proposal for More Informative Reconciling of Book and Tax Income,” which served as a catalyst for changes in the way the IRS collects certain business information. For their work, Mills and Plesko won the highly regarded John R. Wildman Medal from the American Accounting Association.
Plesko is one of the leading scholars in tax accounting in the world, said professor Gary McGill, senior associate dean of business at the University of Florida. Plesko’s contributions include a treasure trove of articles, papers, book chapters, conference and academic presentations and have inspired many young researchers.
“George’s papers are high-quality, well cited, and address important questions related to taxation, accounting, and financial reporting,” McGill said in a nomination letter. “His paper with Lillian Mills, ‘Bridging the Reporting Gap’ had more influence on our federal tax system than any research paper of which I’m aware. This work literally changed the tax reporting system that had been in place for over 50 years.”
In addition to his academic work and research, Plesko has been the president and a trustee of the American Tax Association, president, secretary, and board member of the American Tax Policy Institute, a board member of the National Tax Association, and a peer-review team member and leader for the AACSB. He has been a member of several IRS advisory councils and has provided testimony before Congress on multiple occasions.
School of Business Dean John A. Elliott said the award is not only a tribute to Plesko’s outstanding career achievements, but also a reflection of the elite accounting program at UConn that attracts faculty of such high caliber.
Following in Big Footsteps
Plesko said the Sommerfeld award, presented at a conference in Washington, D.C. last month, came as a complete surprise.
“I’m humbled by this honor,” he said. “The previous recipients are people I hold in the highest regard.”
Among the previous Sommerfeld award winners from UConn were the late professor emeritus John Phillips (2015) and professor emeriti Amy Dunbar (2019). The husband-and-wife team were the first instructors to teach online graduate accounting courses at UConn. Plesko has directed the monetary award to the John D. Phillips Doctoral Student Award fund to support accounting Ph.D students. Phillips seeded the fund with the proceeds of his own award.
“The reason the bar is set so high at UConn is because we’re carrying on the mission that John (Phillips) set out, turning our accounting program into one of nationally recognized excellence,” Plesko said. “He put it on track to grow where it is today.”
Ellen J. Glazerman, executive director of the Ernst & Young Foundation which sponsors the award, said Ray Somerfield was a leader in EY’s education program and a leader in the university setting.
“Known for designing a conceptual approach to teaching tax, for being an outstanding mentor to young scholars, and for doing impactful research, he stayed close to the profession and equally close to young scholars and students,” she said. “His professionalism and humanism came together in a very special way. We created the Ray Sommerfeld Tax Educator Award to honor his legacy and to recognize tax educators for their excellence in teaching, research, and leadership to others. George personifies these same traits and is an excellent selection as the 2022 Ray Sommerfeld Award winner.”
Alumna Elizabeth Kohl, ’15 Ph.D., now a professor of accounting at the University of Montana, described Plesko as larger than life.
“His booming voice was a harbinger of some bit of knowledge or skill or street smarts that we knew with absolute certainty we should take in,” she said in her nomination letter. “His service to the academy, his incredible research record, and his commitment to educating and mentoring the next generation are a cut above.”
Great Advice–and Great Risotto
Professor Michael P. Donohoe, head of the accounting department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, described Plesko as an eminent researcher and extraordinary educator.
“George exhibits a profound interest and high standard of excellence in teaching taxation. He has advised countless students at UConn and beyond,” he said. “George provides each student and scholar-mentee with a rich yet ‘tough love’ learning experience…he always finds time to support them.”
Donohoe, who is not a former student but knows Plesko through professional associations, was appointed as the leader of his department just three weeks before the pandemic began, and leaned on Plesko for advice and encouragement.
“George has never had any obligation to invest his time and energy in me, [but] his mentorship has had an immeasurable effect on my professional development,” he said.
“I often call him first when I need help. I know of several other seasoned faculty that do the same,” he said. “Maybe it is his particularly honest advice, keen ability to cut straight to the point, or propensity to deliver zingers at your expense at just the right time that make him so extraordinary.”
Henry, who spent a pivotal year as a Ph.D. student working at an IRS office not far from Plesko’s home, said Plesko recruited his whole family to help her advance her career, even persuading his daughter to babysit Henry’s child so she could work.
“He would make us risotto for dinner,” she said. “Whose advisor makes them risotto? George made me feel like a part of his family.”