By Maura Boston ‘17 and Jessie Wurzer ‘17
Meet Professor Sandra Vera-Muñoz, the first woman and first Hispanic to serve as the chair of Notre Dame’s Department of Accountancy. Inspired by the faith and strength of her mother, Sandra has spent 25 years at Notre Dame mentoring students and researching the key role that financial reporting plays in sustainability efforts. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
Your research focuses on climate-change financial reporting. Why were you drawn to that work?
In 2010 I went to the annual meeting of the American Accounting Association where thousands of people gather to present research and share our perspectives on teaching. One of the speakers was Mindy Lubber, CEO of a nonprofit called Ceres (Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies), a coalition of investors who put pressure on companies to disclose information about their sustainability efforts.
Mindy said to the group in her keynote address: Look, I’m not an accountant. I’m a lawyer by training, but I’m here to tell you all that as accountants you have a very important role to play in what investors are demanding companies to disclose. Accountants are very good at measuring and reporting economic events and providing assurance on the information companies disclose. We need your expertise, training, and knowledge to help companies measure, report, disclose, and provide credibility on sustainability information.
Those words made a lot of sense to me. Although we don’t tend to think about the link between accounting and sustainability, our profession has everything to do with metrics. Typically, we measure financial metrics, but now there are non-financial metrics that investors are paying attention to. For example, investors want to know what a firm’s exposure is to climate change risks like droughts, rising sea levels, and hurricanes.
I was inspired by Mindy Lubber. I had never done any research related to sustainability, let alone climate, but I started reading more and I became more and more interested in what companies were disclosing about those topics. Sustainability is a really big topic, so I put together a team with a professor from the University of Wisconsin and a professor from the University of Mississippi. The three of us set out to work on our first project, which looked at the association between firm value and carbon emissions and carbon disclosures. We had that paper published and kept working on other projects. I have another team with a huge research agenda as well. The topic of sustainability in accounting is so big and there are so many questions that have yet to be answered. I will be working on this topic until I retire.
You have degrees from the University of Puerto Rico, Penn State, and the University of Texas at Austin. What ultimately brought you to Notre Dame?
When I graduated with my PhD from UT Austin I considered teaching at many different schools, but Notre Dame was the only on my list that had cold weather. I remember my husband and I flying into South Bend for my interview in April and there was snow on the ground. He said there was no way we’d move there, but the moment we started getting to know the school, the students, the faculty, the programs, and the spirit of Notre Dame, it was love at first sight. That was completely unexpected for me.
There is something about Notre Dame that we did not see at the other schools. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but it’s something special. I knew instantly this place was for me. This July will mark my 25th year at Notre Dame. I am now the incoming chair for the Department of Accountancy. I am so grateful and extremely humbled that my colleagues in the accounting department and the dean are putting their trust in me to be the next department leader. Our current department chair has held the position for 12 years and has done an outstanding job. He’s a tough act to follow and will be a tremendously helpful mentor. He has been very generous with his advice and time as he onboards me. Notre Dame has been very good to me. This is my way of giving back and I am very honored to join the Dean’s leadership team.
I am on the Notre Dame Sustainability Strategy Committee, which presented a sustainability strategy to Fr. Jenkins, so I will admit my answer will not be unbiased. Notre Dame has a comprehensive strategy in place, covering all aspects of the university. For example, the strategy addresses the many new buildings on campus, requiring the buildings to meet energy efficient guidelines and other sustainability requirements.
We are doing well on our targets and goals. One of the first goals we had was to reduce carbon emission by 50% by 2030. We have already reached that goal, very ahead of schedule. We also have a longer term goal to reduce our emissions by 83% by 2050 and then to become carbon neutral. I have no doubt in my mind that we will achieve those goals.
We continue to find new ways to improve. For example, the university has recently started measuring Scope 3 emissions. There are three types of carbon emissions, and Scope 3 are emissions related to activities like employee or student-athlete travel. It is a hard type to measure, but you cannot manage what you do not measure. Now that we are looking at these emissions, we can find ways to reduce them.
As a fluent English and Spanish speaker, how has being bilingual helped you in your career?
Being bilingual has really opened a lot of doors for me. On the macro level, speaking multiple languages allows you to understand multiple cultures. When you find commonalities across cultures, it can lead to better understanding and to peace. Instead of looking at differences, I am able to look at what we all have in common.
On the micro level at Notre Dame, many Spanish speaking students self-select into my classes. When those students swing by my office they often start speaking Spanish to me or I start speaking Spanish to them. A lot of our courses are very rigorous, so those students are made more comfortable by that shared language. There aren’t many Spanish speaking faculty in the United States, and I feel very fortunate that I’m at Notre Dame and have the opportunity to work with Spanish speaking students who feel comfortable speaking to me. I would love to see more faculty speaking Spanish! There’s a minority student mentoring program on campus called Building Bridges. I sometimes get assigned Hispanic students. We meet a couple times each semester so they tell me how they are doing and I can provide them with some guidance and advice.
After Hurricane Maria, you were interviewed for an article in which you detail the devastation of Puerto Rico, where you grew up. In the article, you talk a lot about the strength and faith of your mother who still lives there. How has she shaped your career and who you are?
My mother has had an incredible influence on who I am, especially because she was a trailblazer in her own right. She’s from El Salvador and got her PhD in pharmacy. She is 96 years old now, so that was unheard of for most women at the time. She received a scholarship from the United States which brought her to Puerto Rico, where she met my Dad. She couldn’t practice as a pharmacist there, so she became a social worker. My mom is a very gentle woman. She never told my brother, sister, or me that education was very important or that we must go to college. She never told us what to do with our life, but instead taught by example. We saw what she did to achieve her unprecedented level of education and the sacrifices that she made by leaving her country and venturing into the unknown. She was a great example of a working Mom. She is also very religious and prays the rosary every day. My love for and devotion to the Virgin Mary comes from her.
If I could describe my mom in one word it would be stoic. Living through Hurricane Maria at her age is very difficult to put into words. She went without power for three months. The hurricane hit the island on September 20, and she didn’t get power until January 4, 2018. I remember that date because it was also her 95th birthday, and it was the best birthday present ever. My brother, sister, husband, kids, and I were all able to Skype with my mom that day. I think that was providential. I think that was an act of God that on the day of her birthday we were able to connect with her.
We went to Puerto Rico in December of the year of the hurricane with the mission of bringing my mom back to South Bend with us. I bought her a one-way ticket and had a room ready for her in our home. My husband and I went to her house and started packing her things. Two days before we were scheduled to head back to states, she said to us ,“I have changed my mind. I don’t want to leave.” It was so unexpected and it broke my heart, but she’s my mom and I had to respect her will. She had lived with us before for 9 months and was very afraid of the harsh winters in Indiana. I don’t blame her for that. We were very worried about her as she still didn’t have power and life was difficult. For one month, she didn’t have water at her home. Every day my brother had to go and buy water from wherever he could find it.
But that’s how strong my mom is: she knows what she wants, and she knows what she doesn’t want. She is adamant she does not want to go to a nursing home and has said she wants to die in her own home. She’s the strongest person that I know and has lived through so much. She’s my hero. She’s very wise and I still rely on her for guidance and advice. I don’t think I would be the person that I am without my mom and I’m so fortunate that she is still alive. I am very lucky to have her and I count my blessings.
Thank you to Professor Sandra Vera-Muñoz for taking the time to share your experiences with us and for your dedicated service!
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