The rewards of research is the opportunity to solve problems.
Reflecting on a career that’s notched up an impressive list of accomplishments, Professor Ferdinand Gul says his research and teaching is driven by the desire ‘to make a difference’.
Appointed to the Deakin Business School in 2015 as Research Professor of Accounting and Finance, Prof. Gul – who is also an Alfred Deakin Professor – is internationally renowned for his research in accounting, auditing, corporate finance and governance reform. He has published in all the top five accounting journals in the world and in several high profile finance journals.
Holding a prestigious publications’ record, he has also supervised more than 30 PhD students and in 2013 was the first person in Monash University’s history to be conferred a Doctor of Economics.
But Prof. Gul’s pathway to academia wasn’t a direct one. After completing an undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Malaya, he first found employment in the media and commercial sectors.
‘One of my first jobs was working as a newspaper reporter but it wasn’t too long before I decided that life as journalist wasn’t very exciting!’ he recalls.
He then took on a junior role in the corporate sector – which held even less appeal.
‘The reality is that you always start at the bottom of the rung and to be honest, most of the time I was simply making coffee for the bosses,’ he smiles.
But there was soon a new job offer on the table and it came from the University of Malaya, his alma mater.
‘The then-VC remembered me from my undergraduate years – he was a professor in economics and I’d been very active in student politics. He asked me to be his personal assistant and I took on the job as Assistant Registrar in the Chancellery because at that time – the mid 1970s – there was a lot of campus volatility around the issues surrounding the Vietnam War, along with concerns about civil service, government and police corruption,’ he explains.
In this role, Prof. Gul realised that his skills and interests were a ‘good fit’ for the university environment and his next move, with a scholarship in hand, was the University of Liverpool and a master’s degree in commerce.
‘It was a very good experience to study in an English educational setting and Liverpool is a very old university with a lot of tradition,’ he says. ‘My master’s degree specialised in corporate finance, accounting and econometrics … I then returned to University of Malaya to teach accounting.’
The early 1980s saw Prof. Gul move to Australia where he completed a PhD from the University of New England. This was followed by academic positions at the University of Wollongong and Griffith University before a move to Hong Kong where he was based for the next two decades.
‘I spent seven years at Chinese University of Hong Kong before moving to City University and finally Hong Kong Polytechnic where I was head of school with five large departments and 148 staff,’ he says.
In the 1990s, Hong Kong was shrouded by the backdrop of the landmark “handover” of British sovereignty to China in 1997.
Prof. Gul says he could not have chosen a more significant time to live and work there as it offered him the opportunity to gain unique experience into how educational and corporate governance attitudes change, evolve and respond to a changing environment.
‘I was able to witness the devolution of British power and administration and how Hong Kong tried to develop and deal the Chinese government. This inevitably brings educational change so it was an exciting period of time to be involved in the sector. Moreover, I provided consulting services to the Hong Kong Law Reform Commission on corporate governance and was pleased to see that several of my recommendations were accepted by the Commission.’
With a broad portfolio of research accolades, Prof. Gul’s most recent focus has been on corporate governance and gender diversity.
‘One of the key reasons I’m interested in this is that females are often paid less and I’m a great believer in equality. This inequality is unhealthy and people should be paid entirely on the basis of merit,’ he explains.
Using data from the USA, Prof. Gul says that when there are more females on corporate boards, the firm usually performs better in terms of information, communication and accountability.
‘Females are generally more careful, risk-averse and they ask a lot of questions before making a decision … they are concerned about finishing a project and doing it properly.’
While gender diversity holds significant implications for corporate reporting and financial performance, Prof. Gul says Australia still has a ‘long way to go’ in terms of equality – and this makes research all the more important.
‘The more evidence we produce, the more shareholders will take notice and ask why there are not more females on their boards. We don’t know all the reasons behind the lack of diversity but we do know it cannot be based on prejudice, bias and discrimination. We know that equality improves the wellbeing and psyche of society – and this provides broad social stability,’ he explains.
Prof. Gul also holds a strong interest in the role of politics in the commercial sector – particularly in accounting and finance – and says political-connections, political lobbying and political donations within the corporate sector can be damaging as some of these activities facilitate rent-seeking activities.
‘Political parties survive, to a great extent, because of donations from the corporate sector. But these come with strings attached and that creates an unhealthy situation because it’s based on money for favours.’
Interestingly, he sees this as strongly connected to the issue of gender and politics.
‘For example, if a firm has strong political connections and donates a lot a money to a particular party, having a female on the corporate board is likely to raise a lot more accountability questions regarding where the money comes from and where it is going and what the company is getting out of it – so it’s all interrelated,’ he explains.
Prof. Gul adds that one of the great rewards of a research career is having the opportunity to resolve problems.
‘It’s about shedding light on issues like gender diversity and understanding that it can be a big problem that adversely affects broader social stability.’
Importantly, he also considers it ‘very rewarding’ to have the opportunity to teach.
‘I teach in the undergraduate and honours programs and have some very enthusiastic students in the honours programme who ask lots of questions. My aim is to get them to think outside the box, to be aware of broader social and ethical issues and to ask lots of questions and not only become better students but better individuals and leaders.’
He says that academics should never forget the importance of producing outstanding graduates.
‘High-quality graduates grounded in broad social and ethical issues improve human quality – and that leads to a better social and economic climate. At this stage of my career, I’m really happy to help contribute to the development of individuals.’