Prof. Jennifer Blouin on Teaching Taxes

Wharton Prof. Jennifer Blouin
Wharton Prof. Jennifer Blouin

Prof. Jennifer Blouin joined the Wharton faculty in 2003, but taught her first MBA for Executives class in San Francisco this past summer. We asked her about her experience of teaching taxes to EMBA students, as well as her current research areas. Here’s what she said:

Q. What class did you teach last summer at Wharton | San Francisco?

I taught an elective called Taxes and Business Strategy, which focuses on the role of taxes in business decision making. Taxes are often one of the biggest expenses for corporations and they usually affect multiple parties like the tax payer, the government, regulators, and buyers/sellers. The class stresses that you can’t let the tax tail wag the economic dog because there could be other nontax considerations like financial reporting and legal structures that could trump the tax benefits. The class helps students think about taxation more strategically.

Q. What kind of students take this class? Are they all accountants?

Actually, there is no accounting and I’ve had very few accountants in the class. It’s more finance in nature as I focus on concepts such as the time value of money. There are a lot of entrepreneurs working on startups in the class because they need to know how to structure their businesses for taxes. I also see students who work inside the government (even Treasury). They know taxes affect a lot of what they do and gain a better understanding of that in this course. The elective is essentially for anyone involved in corporate decision making or launching a business.

Q. What do you like about teaching taxes to executive MBA students?

I really enjoy teaching EMBA students because they are working and see the immediate application of the material to the real-world environment. They appreciate the strategic nature of taxes and how they can affect the underlying structure of a deal. They also are in tune with current policy changes that impact their particular industries. This helps faculty learn from students too. It’s one thing for me to stand up and lecture, but it’s fantastic when a student can bring up a real-world problem or structure and say how they see it from another angle. When you teach a case, you have a set of facts, but that isn’t what the real world is like because no one else has that same fact pattern. It’s great to hear about other fact patterns or even how nontax issues are relevant. It’s a very appealing dynamic to have in the classroom.

Q. How did you like commuting to teach in San Francisco?

I liked teaching on the West Coast a lot because when you’re there, you’re focused on teaching the entire time. I don’t feel rushed to get back to my office to address departmental issues or home to deal with my 12-year-old’s soccer game schedule. When you’re on the San Francisco campus, you spend more time informally chatting in the hallways and at meals with students. The facility is gorgeous and views are awesome. As for the community, the staff makes it effortless for faculty. They facilitate your commute and ensure your attention is on students and not personal logistics. It’s a lot of fun because I only have to concern myself with developing interesting course material and effectively delivering it to students.

Q. How is your class structured?

We have a different overall topic in each session. I give lectures, but we also discuss cases and real-world examples of structures and things that work well or no longer work. For example, we may spend one three-hour class on multinational taxation and discuss various types of systems used by other countries, the pitfalls associated with those systems, and how the U.S. is an outlier compared to other nations. We also may discuss political pressures and ongoing debates about global taxes. I’ll give students a problem set to do in advance of class so we can discuss the punchline, which is why they should care about this issue and why the answer may not be as clear as they thought. I set them up for a dialogue. I don’t go into picky tax details, but instead provide a framework that travels well and can be applied to other jurisdictions.

Q. When you’re not teaching, what are your main research areas?

My research is divided into two broad areas. First, I study how the intersection of multinational taxation and financial reporting affects firm behavior. We know taxes matter and companies would prefer lower taxes, but it turns out there are some financial reporting consequences associated with investing abroad that lead firms to potentially over-invest in foreign jurisdictions. Second, I look at what it means to be aggressive from a tax planning perspective, whether that is good or bad, and how it can be measured.