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Back Story

$1.2 Million Payday

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Although he no longer does much number crunching, Senior Accountant Brent Swanson, CPA, finds multiple ways to add value at Iowa State University in Ames. For example, several years ago when a major software manufacturer was involved in a class action lawsuit in Iowa, he and a coworker decided to join the claim. 

“Since we did partner with the company, we thought the university would be a good candidate to get a reimbursement,” Swanson explains. The result: a whopping $1.2 million settlement.

The college hired the CPA in 1999 when technology services sold about $15 million annually in computers to students, faculty, and staff. When that function moved to the campus bookstore, Swanson remained in technology services. “I took the job at Iowa State, figuring I would be here two or three years,” he says. “I blinked, and the next thing I know, I’ve been here 14 years.”

What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?

Back when I was still doing accounting, I enjoyed reconciling the books. When they were off, I liked playing detective and looking for the discrepancy. Although I enjoy what I do now, I guess I have a bit of nostalgia over the nitty-gritty, day-to-day accounting I used to do. I love numbers.

What do you do now?

Software contracts and distribution. Budgeting and forecasting. Creating rates for departments. IT-related functions. Coming to work every day, I’m never sure what I’m going to get myself into. 

How do you make decisions?

My style is laid-back. I prefer to empower employees and let them make their own decisions and come up with their own solutions. When employees come to me for advice, I listen and let them bounce their ideas off of me. I try not to tell them what they should or should not be doing.

What’s the biggest issue you see facing your profession right now?

Credibility. Remember Enron? We need to ensure that members of our profession have a good ethical background.

How can institutions prevent unethical activity?

Checks and balances. A careful review of expenses. There will always be one person who tries to beat the system, which is why you need to have the right checks in place. 

You started your career as a public accountant. How does working for a university compare to working in the private sector?

We’re slower to make decisions.

Is that good or bad?

It can be maddening. I’ve been working with several others on a data destruction policy for old hard drives, CDs, tape drives, and DVDs. After buying a hard drive crusher, I’m chomping at the bit to destroy the hard drives with sensitive data that are sitting on shelves around the campus. It is a slow process to make sure that we have covered all our bases, everything from where the destruction equipment will be housed to liability issues.     

What do you do for fun?

I bike and run. My kids and I like to go fishing on the weekends. My 7-year-old daughter Alyssa likes to fish, and my 4-year-old son Brennan likes to throw rocks and scare away all the fish, which kind of defeats the purpose, but we find it relaxing to get out and enjoy the scenery. 

My wife Sarah and I have another child on the way. Our house is nice and quiet right now. We’re going to be back to sleepless nights and lots of noise, but I’m looking forward to it. Our daughter is the mother-hen type. She’s excited about changing diapers. We’ll definitely take her up on that.  

What do you think is the biggest challenge for higher education?

Keeping our product affordable. I worry that in 10 to 15 years, when we’re sending our kids to college, we won’t be able to afford it. I don’t want them to graduate with $50,000 in loans.  

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.