Academic who helped transform the discipline of accounting

Ted O’Leary: May 18th, 1950 - May 29th, 2014


Timothy (Ted) O’Leary, who died suddenly and prematurely aged 64, dedicated most of his professional life to showing that accounting is much more than a neutral technical endeavour.

O’Leary was born in St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, London on May 18th, 1950, son of Maureen and Denis O’Leary. He attended Christian Brothers College, Cork until he was 16, and completed his education in Scoil Mhuire Gan Smál, Blarney. He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1974. The following year he embarked on an MBA at Trinity College Dublin, where he discovered his appetite for academic endeavours. In 1976, he was appointed as a lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Cork, a post he held for nearly a decade. While working there, he registered for a PhD at the University of Warwick, which he completed successfully in 1983. In the same year, he was appointed senior lecturer in accounting, at the National University of Ireland, Cork, where he stayed for a further two years. Appointments He was a visitor at London Business School, 1982-3, where he met his long-term collaborator Peter Miller. In 1986, he was appointed assistant professor of accountancy at the University of Illinois, where he stayed for five years. In 1991, he returned to Ireland, having been appointed associate professor of accounting at the National University of Ireland, Cork, a post he held for 10 years. In 1997, he was appointed adjunct associate professor of accounting at the University of Michigan, and was promoted to adjunct professor of accounting there in 2002, a post he held until his passing.

O’Leary was appointed professor of accounting at the University of Manchester in 2001, a post he also held until his passing on May 29th, 2014.

O’Leary helped transform the discipline of accounting, and he did so from a point of view that straddled the Atlantic. As his appointments testify, he did this in part through holding posts on both sides of the Atlantic. And he did this also by continuing to study US firms, even when based in Ireland and the UK. O’Leary looked at accounting from both the inside and the outside. From the inside, he was genuinely interested in managers and management. He focused on how things worked and were made operational in managerial worlds. Much of his research was field based, and he developed longstanding relations with companies as diverse as Caterpillar Inc and Intel Corp. Highest standards From the outside though, he was far from being merely descriptive and a slave to the categories and discourses of those he studied. He had a keen sense of organisational and practical complexity. He was the exemplary empiricist, who brought the highest standards possible to fieldwork.

In 1987, O’Leary published his landmark “governable person” paper in accounting, organisations and society (AOS), a paper that was to have an immense impact on academic accounting, examining as it did the roles of accounting in changing societal patterns of power.

In 1994, he published another landmark paper in AOS, a study of changing modes of governing economic life in a factory modernisation programme at Caterpillar Inc.

Following that project, he embarked on a long-term study of investment appraisal mechanisms at Intel Corp, which resulted in a further major paper which was also published in AOS, in 2007.

In between, he published papers in a diverse range of top journals, including the Journal of Accounting Research, Science in Context, and the Academy of Management Review.

Ted O’Leary is survived by his wife Catherine, and daughters Susan and Jill.