The mere thought of the federal tax code may send shivers down most people’s spines.
“Some people approach taxes as a black hole, a gravitational force sucking them in, and they don’t understand what’s doing it,” he said, “but I find them interesting.”
McKenna, who joined Governors State University in 2010, teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses on tax law. His interest marries his backgrounds in accounting and law.
Throughout McKenna’s more than 20 years in academia, he has taught dozens of courses ranging from accounting and law to tax and finance. McKenna focused much of his legal career on tax litigation and has published articles dealing with tax law and public employee unions.
When GSU needed a tax law professor, it seemed like a natural fit for someone who loves the classroom and the courtroom, and shares a connection with the students, he said.
McKenna came from a family of five, where three of the children—including himself — were first-generation college students.
“I like working with the students we draw to Governors State. They are some of the hardest working and most dedicated that I’ve seen.”
In addition to teaching students about tax law, McKenna shares his finance know-how in financial literacy workshops on debt, budgeting, insurance, and spending.
GSU Newsroom: What is your top budgeting tip offered in financial literacy workshops?
McKenna: Create a budget and put it in practice. Sit down with either pencil and paper or an Excel spreadsheet and do it—don’t just do it in your head. It’s extremely valuable to memorialize your thoughts in a way that you can see the big picture.
GSU Newsroom: What piece of advice do you give your students?
McKenna: My wife and I came from relatively modest backgrounds and we feel like our education has served us very well over the years. We both are strong advocates of education; it’s a critical element in upward income mobility.
I tell my students there are two pieces of paper most closely related with my upward income mobility. The two documents are a college degree and a marriage certificate. I can’t help with the marriage certificate, but I can help with the college degree.
I tell them to never give up on education. You may not see where it’s an immediate benefit, but at some point in your career you’ll look back and be grateful that you have those additional skill sets.
I also tell them to try to learn as much interdisciplinary material as you can because that makes you a more valuable contributor to society and as an employee.
GSU Newsroom: What are the benefits of online courses?
McKenna: I have found that online teaching is a more effective tool. My students are far more engaged and ask more precise questions than I typically would get in class.
In online classes, the students carve out a time of the week that they want to work on this and it works very well. Many of our students are working or have other family commitments. Offering the flexibility of online learning is a significant benefit for them.
GSU Newsroom: What is the best way to learn tax law?
McKenna: Small bites. Take small bites and restart the material a few days later, so it makes sense. The online environment is particularly helpful to this kind of learning.
GSU Newsroom: What are you researching with the new tax code?
McKenna: As a result of the 2017 tax legislation, there is a plethora of research opportunities. The legislation includes changes to itemized deductions, which triggers the question, ‘Will there be less charitable giving because donors are not seeing a tax advantage?’ or, ‘Will there be less home ownership because the standard deduction is more beneficial than taking the itemized deduction?’
There are questions about the corporate tax reforms, as well and how that might affect U.S. businesses. It’s those kind of things—the unintended consequences and how that will affect the marketplace—that I find interesting. How do individuals or businesses change their behavior as a result of the tax law changes?
GSU Newsroom: What is something your students would be surprised to know about you?
McKenna: My four-year old granddaughter and I play Barbies. She gets to play the star, producer, and director. I’m just a bit player who makes the scenes work.