And Counting

After more than 50 years at Notre Dame, accounting professor Ken Milani’s popular classes and personal connections keep adding up.

Author: Caroline Collins

“Did you learn something right now? I can tell people are learning something here,” professor Ken Milani remarks to his accounting class on a Tuesday afternoon in the Mendoza College of Business. Every seat in Milani’s coveted section of Accountancy II is filled with attentive students. The professor moves about the room, reviewing the weekend homework assignment, calling on students to answer questions and joking about the chances of the Cubs winning another World Series.

Milani scatters sports references throughout his explanations. He connects, for example, the day’s lesson about determining fixed and variable costs to Notre Dame’s football stadium. Fixed costs, he explains, are associated with maintaining the stadium, no matter how many people attend the game. Variable costs, like the number of concessions sold, depend on attendance.

Milani’s career at the University spans 52 years and counting. In the spring of 1972, when Milani joined the accounting faculty, Notre Dame looked a lot different than it does now. Women would be admitted as undergraduates for the first time the following fall, and his early years as a professor coincided with the rise of the computer.

More than half a century later, the 83-year-old Milani has no plans to retire. He jokes that he’s going to die in his classroom, pop up again and say, “I have to tell one more story.”

For Milani, accounting has always been just another way to learn more about people. “The numbers have always told me a story,” he says.

When he first began doing tax work, he found that the financial information clients shared helped him get to know them and better serve their interests. “I’m really much more of a people person than a numbers guy,” Milani says. “But the numbers enabled me to find out a lot about people. I know who they are, where they live, how much money they make, how much money they have in the bank and how many kids they have. Not because you’re nosy, you just need that information.”

He knows the perceptions of accounting as a dull subject, so he tries to make it as interesting as possible with examples that bring the lessons to life. A diehard Chicago Cubs fan, Milani regularly references his favorite team to explain how financial planning depends on the whether it is the “high” point of the season, with World Series hopes still alive, or the offseason when the future must be the focus.

Junior Catie Berkemeier took Milani’s accounting course her sophomore year and fondly remembers how he wanted all of his students to succeed, and the sense of community in the classroom.

“It’s a class I would look forward to going to every day. He assigned each of us a partner to bounce questions off of, or if we wanted to have a little group discussion,” she says. “I was never stressed out because I knew there was help all around me if I needed it.”

Accounting professor Ken Milani stands in front of a screen projecting data as he talks to students in the classroom.
For Milani, the numbers an accountant gathers are just a way to better understand and help people. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

Milani’s commitment to teaching and service have been honored often over the years. He’s twice been recognized with Notre Dame’s Kaneb Award for Undergraduate Teaching and twice for his work with graduate students. In 2006, he received the University’s William A. Toohey, CSC, Award for Social Justice.

Reflecting on his long career at the University, Milani expresses gratitude for the strong sense of community and support that students, faculty and staff have demonstrated for him and his family. In 1983, his son Adam ’88, suffered spinal cord damage in a high school hockey game that left him paralyzed from the chest down. In the years following Adam’s injury, the Notre Dame community raised $250,000 to buy a specially equipped vehicle and pay for nursing care, supporting Adam as he continued his education at Notre Dame and attended law school at Duke University.

Adam went on to teach law at the Mercer University Law School in Georgia. He was elected to the American Law Institute in recognition of his legal publications. The Notre Dame Alumni Association honored him for his service to the disabled. He died in 2005 from complications after surgery.

In August 2020, Ken Milani survived a stroke and points to the community of people praying for him as a key to his recovery. “If you don’t believe in the power of prayer, just look at me,” he says. “People here are very good, they respond and their hearts are in the right place.”

Milani grew up in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, listening to Notre Dame football on Saturdays and receiving spiritual guidance from his grandmother. Academics, athletics and religion have always been a big part of his life, so the Bradley University graduate who earned his Ph.D at the University of Iowa isn’t surprised he ended up at Notre Dame.

“It’s hard to describe where you find the Notre Dame spirit, the Notre Dame experience, whatever you want to call it. You find that everywhere. Some people find that in the band, some people find it in the classroom and some people find it in the dorm,” he says. “It’s there. It’s hard to describe. If you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you. If you do understand it, you can fill in the blanks fairly quickly.”

In addition to teaching, Milani is a co-contributor to a weekly South Bend Tribune Tax Talk column that appears from mid-January to mid-April. He also co-founded the Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s Tax Assistance Program (TAP) in 1972. The program provides basic income tax return preparation services at no cost to low-income individuals and families in the local community.

Using his accounting knowledge to give back has long been a priority for Milani and TAP provides a way to do that. A special service award from the Internal Revenue Service in 2005 recognized his work with the program.

Community is everything for Milani, which is a big part of why he continues his daily routine of coming to school, talking with his colleagues and teaching his classes.

“People always ask me why I came back to the office,” Milani says. “There are three reasons: the computers are a lot better, the coffee is a heck of a lot better and there’s some comradeship.”

Caroline Collins, a junior environmental science major and journalism minor, is this magazine’s spring intern.