Columbia Business School lost an enduring member of its community on Sunday, when John C. “Sandy” Burton passed away at 77. Professor Burton was connected to the School in a number of roles: as a student, earning his MBA in 1956 and PhD in 1962; as a faculty member from 1962 to 2002; and as dean from 1982 to 1988.
In addition to his long and impressive tenure with Columbia Business School, Professor Burton left a lasting impression in public life as well. In Washington DC, he joined the Securities and Exchange Commission as its chief accountant in 1972, then returned to New York City to become Abraham Beame’s deputy mayor for finance in 1976, a time when the city faced severe financial challenges.
The New York Times, in an obituary showcasing Professor Burton’s life, writes about his approach to accounting and financial regulation:
At the S.E.C., Mr. Burton stiffened the requirements for financial reporting by companies and lobbied accounting firms to take greater responsibility for the accuracy and clarity of the financial records under their review.
He argued that the accountant’s task should not be confined to auditing corporate books, but should include forecasts, judgments on the corporation’s financial controls and evaluations of management. And he argued that accounting firms were too secretive about their own finances.
“The mantra he was selling to Capitol Hill was, ‘An eighth grader has to understand this: Is the company healthy or isn’t it?’” said his daughter, now the general counsel for the Hearst Corporation, who was an eighth grader while her father was in Washington.