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Back Story

Care to Cha Cha?

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Diana Kuhlmann’s desk is littered with mantras that reinforce the power of positive thinking. One goes like this:  “An optimist is someone who thinks that taking a step backward, after a step forward, is not a disaster. It’s a cha cha.”

As the associate vice president for fiscal affairs and budget director at Emporia State University, this CPA has learned how to dance.

One of the three main signatories authorized to obligate the Kansas university contractually and fiscally, Kuhlmann evaluates business decisions, particularly for term services, construction contracts, software, and maintenance. “Most of the time we defer to the department’s judgment because they’re in the trenches, but I may have questions about the terms of payment or whether we have gotten the best price. I evaluate from a fiscal and risk standpoint.” 

Married to a childhood friend who is now in his 29th year with the fire department, and having two grown daughters, Kuhlmann treasures her Midwestern way of life. “I love to visit the big city, but it’s always nice to come home and sit on my front porch.” 

Was accounting your dream job?

My dream job was to be an elementary school teacher. When I was a senior in high school, I needed an elective so I decided to try an accounting class. My teacher said, “You know what? You would make a really fine accountant.” We had some CPAs in the family who were very encouraging, so I tried it in college and decided that is where I wanted to be.

What characteristics do accounting professionals need to move up the ladder?

Flexibility, open minds, creative thinking, and good problem solving. Communication is key. You might think accountants sit in a back room and crunch numbers all day, but their job is really about communication and problem solving.  

Looking back over your career, what one thing would you like to do differently?

In reality, I think if I changed one little thing, I wouldn’t have what I have today, and I consider myself very blessed, not only in my personal life but in my professional life. If I had gone left instead of right, things could have been very different—and not necessarily better.  

What budget mistakes are institutions making?

Perhaps holding onto “sacred cows.” Not being as introspective as we could be. Sometimes we think, “Well, there is no way we can squeeze any tighter” when maybe we just need to do things differently. If we continue to do the same things over and over, we won’t get different or better results.

What gives you the most satisfaction in your work?

Adding value. Sitting down with the departments and deans and talking about solutions and how we might improve services for students. Feeling like I have brought something to the table that is useful and part of a solution.

If you could change one policy at your college, what would it be?

The way we compensate employees. In Kansas, we have classified service, which is controlled by the state, and unclassified service, which is overseen by the university. This means we can’t adjust for cost of living or award merit increases to all our employees because we aren’t authorized to change the wages of employees who are classified. When these employees see others around them get even a 1 percent raise and they’re getting nothing, it’s tough on morale.  

I would like to see everybody be able to be on the same playing field.

How about personal renewal? What do you do?

I work in the yard and garden, growing flowers that will tolerate our Kansas droughts—geraniums, petunias, begonias, whatever moves my creative spirit. When I’m stressed, I pull weeds. I don’t have to think about anything but yanking those things out of the ground.  

Listening to music is good for my soul. I most enjoy jazz and country. I really get my energy and joy out of the simple things in life: faith, family, and friends.  

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

Credit: Dick Garvey, Emporia State University