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A year of firsts, followed by lead published author

November 23, 2020

John Patten

Few freshmen take on an academic research study, on top of a full class load, at the start of their university journey. Even fewer collaborate with a highly respected faculty member in one of the most well-known academic programs in the state and beyond. Then only in rare instances does the experience vault the research study to the status of published article (entitled “Deja Vu: An Analysis of Tax Incentives and Auto Manufacturers in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois”) in a top-notch peer-reviewed academic journal (Journal of Government Financial Management).

But even more rare? Being listed as first author.

“I was a little nervous initially,” admits John Patten, an accountancy and political science double major. “After all, I was a few months removed from high school and asking to do research with a professor.”

At NIU, Patten found a powerful avenue for making just such a request: the university’s Research Rookies program. The program connects the bright minds of undergraduates with the thought-leadership of faculty as they explore a specific research pursuit together. In their faculty advisor, Research Rookies gain both a mentor and a collaborator. From them, the students also gain the skills and knowledge needed to conduct professional research. They spend one semester participating in research exploration activities; then in the following semester, they become undergraduate research assistants and work on the faculty-mentored project. Through it all, they are active in cohort meetings and must also commit up to 10 hours a week on their research projects.

“To complicate matters further,” Patten, now a junior, says as he continues to reflect on his freshman year, “I didn’t really have a clear plan at first. However, Kate was very welcoming at the start and was always very encouraging.”

When accountancy professor Kate Mantzke describes their work together, she begins at the end of the project – always keeping the goal in mind and working backward from there.

“John is the first author on this article for good reason,” says Mantzke, who is the Donna R. Kieso Professor of Accountancy, a named professorship in the Department of Accountancy in the College of Business. “This study was his idea. He went above and beyond in conducting the necessary research during his freshman year. He brought a tireless work ethic and a hearty enthusiasm to the ongoing research task. It was most definitely a pleasure working with him.”

As Patten describes it, their study analyzed the state and local tax incentives given to Mitsubishi’s Illinois-based auto factory. He shares his dismay at the size of the original megadeal, orchestrated in the mid-1980s by then-Governor Jim Thompson, which was later followed by more incentives before production ended in 2015.

He asked himself: how could the Mitsubishi project have failed even with hundreds of millions in incentives. “Is Rivian — the heavily incentivized electric truck manufacturer that purchased the plant — doomed to the same fate? Our paper seeks to answer these questions by exploring the environment of the deals, the deals themselves, and the actors involved. Our work also provides recommendations on how states can avoid the mistakes made by Illinois when providing incentives.”

For Patten, the project hits home not only because of his major area of study in accounting but also because he grew up in Normal, Illinois, where the Mitsubishi auto factory was located.

“My intention going into the project was to investigate how tax policy influences kitchen table economics,” he continues. “This led me to stories about how incentives had been used in my hometown to lure companies such as Portillo’s and Mitsubishi. Eventually, Mitsubishi was chosen for this study because of its huge impact and historic nature. It was also significant because birth-to-death studies on tax incentives are so rare.”

By any measure, Patten’s project was rare, large and complex, and he took it on not only as a freshman but, under Mantzke’s guidance, he completed it as a freshman, too.

“Kate has definitely been an important mentor for me; I would say the most important mentor I’ve had at NIU,” Patten shares. “I’ve learned a lot from her about research, publishing, tax law, and the NIU accounting program.”

Near the close of the 2018-2019 academic term, with Mantzke present as his faculty advisor, Patten presented their research findings to university leadership and faculty scholars during the university’s Research and Artistry Day, an event dedicated to showcasing the work of NIU Research Rookies. But even before then, he was a Huskie. During his last semester as a high school senior, Patten was awarded the prestigious NIU Presidential Scholar designation. Since that time, he became a double major at NIU and a Research Rookie. He later became a Peer Mentor in the Research Rookies program, guiding new rookies through aspects of the discovery process. He also served as President of NIU’s Residence Hall Association, and currently he competes on NIU’s nationally ranked Mock Trial team.

And now in fall 2020, his many achievements include that of being a published lead author in a top-notch academic journal. It’s worth noting that Journal of Government Financial Management is published by the Association of Government Accountants for its membership, which consists of professional accountants who work in the area of financial management for federal, state, and local governments throughout the United States. The journal’s current circulation is more than 14,200 subscribers — which means that nothing short of a national group of industry experts stand to read Patten’s co-conducted research.

“It was certainly exciting when we got the news that the Journal of Government Financial Management had accepted our article,” Patten says. “The publishing process was a bit of an emotional roller coaster. We had to tend to lots of criticisms by the reviewers.”

In fact, Patten and Mantzke worked through comments provided by three blind reviewers as well as the journal editor to revise and refine the article for publication.

“I considered this project my baby,” he continues, “and I’m pleased with how it turned out.”

As is his faculty mentor, who enjoyed a front-row seat not only to Patten’s character, potential, and growth but as importantly to his ability to handle stress, including the overlooked but very real stress that often accompanies success.

“John is an outstanding and well-rounded student,” Mantzke says. “He is an incredible individual who has made an amazing achievement. And yet he doesn’t sit back. We continue to work on research started during his sophomore year that explores tax policy issues related to the evolution of U.S. retirement savings over the years. John is quite simply an amazing ambassador for NIU.”

All of which begs the question: where does Patten’s motivation to hit the ground running each day come from?

“I would like to think of myself as someone who is both motivated and disciplined; discipline is something I definitely take pride in. Part of that probably comes from playing football at Normal Community High School. NCHS has a historically very successful program in large part because it teaches discipline and relentless effort so well. Part of that also probably comes from the way my parents raised me. My dad is a farmer. Growing up, I was always encouraged to push myself to be the best I could be at school, sports, and all else.”

As for his future, he already sees the path forward. After he graduates from NIU in spring 2022, John plans to attend law school the following fall, with his sights set on working in business or tax law.