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When Mission Matters Most

July/August 2018

By Marta Drake

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Despite inevitable challenges, or their individual paths to their respective institution’s top financial position, chief business officers share a common thread of remaining committed to serving their campuses and students.

Today’s higher education chief business officer must navigate a much different world than that of only a few years ago. Doing more with less has taken on new meaning, as dwindling resources make the CBOs job harder and harder to do. With a growing list of priorities and demands for their attention, CBOs must also spend more time “putting out fires.” 

How do CBOs find the energy and wherewithal to work on the multidimensional strategic issues before them? When juggling many different, critical issues, how do CBOs carve out time to focus on the big picture? What can they do to ensure that they, and their teams, are as successful as possible in turbulent times? While there is no “regular” day for a CBO, how does one manage the role through its ebbs and flows? Time and again, NACUBO’s CBO thought leaders return to a common theme that is simple in many ways, and yet, extremely profound, thought-provoking, and magnanimous: mission.

Support of mission may seem a clichéd or even overlooked job requirement in some respects, and yet, understanding its significance to a college or university can neither be disregarded nor underestimated. Essential elements of the mission mindset include: appreciating and valuing the mission of higher education, espousing the specific mission and vision of your institution, and seeing the roles of CBOs and their staff members as inclusive of more than business and finance functions. “Understanding, embracing, and getting passionate about the core product is key,” says Brett Dalton, recently named chief business officer, Baylor University, Waco, Texas; and former vice president for finance and operations at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C. Doing so, and spending time defining what the product means and what makes it unique, special, and different, is vital.

How does a CBO figure out how to support the mission of the higher education enterprise? Dalton elaborates: “We must be committed to higher education—embrace its purpose. There aren’t a lot of industries that can claim to improve lives and the human condition like higher education. We’re not here for finance and administration. We’re here to transform individual lives in society and make the human condition better.” 

Considering the number of CBOs—regardless of background, education, or professional pathway— who have volunteered their time to be interviewed for NACUBO’s “CBO Speaks” podcast series highlights the importance that they place on sharing their knowledge and their love of what they do on a daily basis. Truth be told, vice presidents of finance and administration are often regarded as the “accidental profession” within higher education, in part because so few CBOs purposefully seek their role—and many confess to “falling into” this career. While there are many pathways and transitions into the CBO position, among the most common are these five: from student to staff, from faculty member to administrator, via friend and family connection, through personal journey, and by ambition to seek change. 

Regardless of the route taken, one pattern emerges over and over through NACUBO’s conversations with these seasoned leaders. They are ultimately drawn to their CBO role because of their passion for higher education and its mission. 

Getting Hooked Early

Many examples exist of CBOs who were student employees at their college or university before becoming full-time employees. In some cases, these individuals started working within business and finance functions as students, and upon graduation, stayed on as a staff member. Mike Gower, Rutgers University’s executive vice president for finance and administration and university treasurer, had done a graduate student internship at his alma mater in an operational capacity. He spoke to a few people who worked there, and, coincidentally, a job became available. “It didn’t take very long for me to get hooked on the field,” says Gower. 

Others have taken a more circuitous path before ending up back at their home institutions. Because of their connections and affection for their school, these CBOs wanted to give back to a community that meant so much to them and supported them during their formative years. 

Phil Dolittle, executive vice chancellor of finance and administration and chief financial officer at Brandman University, Irvine, Calif., took an indirect route to the CBO role at his undergraduate institution, the University of Redlands, Calif. Because of his alumni status, Dolittle found himself on the board of trustees for his alma mater. Then, due to some unforeseen circumstances occurring at the senior leadership level, Dolittle was recruited as vice president for finance, ultimately serving his alma mater for 23 years. 

Oftentimes, CBOs find a mentor or advocate who ends up bringing them back to campus, luring them to the work of the academic enterprise, and showing them how they could offer their talents to advance the institution and its mission. 

Current NACUBO Board Chair Mary Lou Merkt, vice president for finance and administration, Furman University, Greenville, S.C., was invited back to her alma mater, Radford University, Radford, Va., by an accounting professor who had been her mentor during college. The professor had become the CBO there and asked Merkt to join her. Similarly, Dalton became close to his Clemson graduate adviser, who gave him an opportunity to go back to work at his alma mater. Dalton served in numerous capacities before assuming his CBO role there in 2008.

Crossing Over

Another notable career entry point is through the faculty. Among a subset of CBOs who came into the profession because they were teaching at their institutions and then were tapped to assist on the administrative side is Choi Halladay, vice president of administrative services at Pierce College, Puyallup, Wash. He was a professor in the economics department when he was asked to fill in as interim CBO, and then he never returned to the faculty. 

CBOs who enter the profession this way often have the benefit of coming from a teaching mindset and being seen as an internal ally because of their history as a faculty member. In these cases, many of the CBOs understand how they can leverage their former role to be successful in their current one. What is critical for this transition is a holistic approach to their positions—one that clearly understands the institution’s mission, has the caché of being one of the faculty, and has the experience and willingness to carry new responsibility.

Roger Bruszewski, who recently retired from his position as vice president for finance and administration and CFO at Millersville University, Millersville, Pa., was a faculty member in the business department at an institution for three years, when the college received a grant to put in a new computer system. “They needed an administrator to do that, and I became the chief information officer. I had no computers, and I had no staff, so I built everything from scratch.” Bruszewski fondly speaks of his mentor who helped him develop skills and gave him opportunities to grow and gain the experience necessary to be a university administrator. His entry point allowed him to enjoy “being in all aspects of the campus.” 

Connecting by Chance

Some CBOs among NACUBO’s membership came to their positions in more serendipitous ways, either because they had a connection to the community through a family member or a friend, or because they were seeking more meaning in their profession. For instance, Dawn Rhodes, chief business and finance officer and vice president at the University of Maryland, Baltimore (UMB), learned about a position through a member in her church community who was the human resources director at the University of Toledo. A budget director position was open and Rhodes was encouraged to apply. “And the rest, as they say, is history. I fell in love with higher education upon starting at the University of Toledo.”

Arch Asawa, vice president for finance and administration and CFO at Soka University, Alisa Viejo, Calif., came to his position through a family friend. In Asawa’s case, he bonded with the leadership at Soka “over a shared mission—creating students who want to make a difference in society.” 

Mike Mandl and Connie Kanter say they came to their higher education finance roles seeking a more meaningful profession after working in other industries. Mandl, formerly Emory University’s executive vice president for business, had his undergraduate degree and was working as a CPA in the private sector. Following a sudden death in his family when he was 25 years old, Mandl decided to explore other fields. Upon going back to school to obtain his master’s degree, he came to see the power of research universities—and, particularly, those with academic medical centers—and what these organizations can do for individuals, communities, and the world. His thought was that he “really wanted to engage in a way where my life’s work was oriented around an institution that felt like it was a cause bigger than myself.”

Kanter, vice president of finance and business affairs and CFO for Seattle University, spent 20 years working at a number of high-tech companies. She took some time off to spend with her children at home, and during that break she did a lot of volunteer work with nonprofits in the Seattle area. When she went back to work in a high-tech manufacturing job, she realized: “The challenge was that it wasn’t an industry that I cared a lot about. It really made me think about the mission of an organization in a way that I hadn’t previously. I knew that my next step had to be something more mission focused.” That’s when she found her current job at Seattle University.

Seeking Needed Changes

Yet another—and quite unique, amusing, and perhaps even ornery—way of coming to the CBO role, is taking those who had a negative experience with higher education administration and sought to correct what they saw as a profession that needed improvement. Gerald Whittington, senior vice president for business, finance, and technology at Elon University, Elon, N.C., describes his path to the CBO role in a very colorful, activist manner. 

When he lost his financial aid during the Vietnam War, he went to campus administration in search of answers and assistance. After going up the chain of command—from his resident adviser, to the director of financial aid, and eventually to the CBO—he was shocked to realize “no one had a clue” about how to help him. 

As he left each office in defeat, his late 1960s activist mindset clicked on the solution. His thought: “Well, I can do as good a job as you can.” This planted the seed that shaped his goal of preparing himself to go into this field. Whittington describes his conviction during that time: “One day I want to sit at that desk and answer students who come to see me better than he just did.”

Similar to Whittington, Bronté Jones, vice president for finance and administration at Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., came to her role via an activist, change mindset. Coming from a family of educators, Jones always knew that she wanted to work on a college campus. As she explains, however: “I always knew that I was going to get my Ph.D., and I imagined that I would teach,” she says. It was during her doctoral work that she found herself at the state auditor’s office, auditing campus financial aid programs. 

This experience led her on the path to her current role. “I came into contact with a number of administrators who, I hate to say this, I found less than impressive. So, I actually made the decision that, rather than be in the classroom, I could take my financial acumen and become an administrator and affect change in that way,” explains Jones.

Expanding Your Role

Regardless of the path many finance leaders take to the profession, it is clear that successful CBOs are drawn to the overall mission of their institution and higher education as a whole. That said, when doing the business and administrative work required for the job, it is easy to get distracted by the minutiae of the moment and find yourself hours later wondering where the day has gone and when one will have the opportunity to think strategically and manage through the big issues. How does one get out of that vicious cycle, take a moment’s breath, slow down, gain perspective, and embrace the institutional mission that brought you to the role in the first place? 

Knowing your place and remembering that you are in a supporting role to the mission of the institution is key, reminds Dalton. His insight shared at the beginning of this article bears repeating: “We’re not here for finance and administration. We’re here to transform individual lives in society and make the human condition better.”

Gregg Goldman, senior vice president of business affairs at The University of Arizona, Tucson, shares the same sentiment in another way: “We have great services that are amazing—but that’s not going to make us great. It’s great faculty, research discovery, students.” Excellence within your particular part of the campus is critical, and remembering how you fit into the institution is tantamount, adds Bruszewski: “You’re not a chief business officer, you’re an officer of the institution. It’s institution first.” 

Another way to recalibrate your role and impact on your institution is to reflect on why you decided to work in higher education finance and administration in the first place. Stacey Pearson, vice president for finance and administration at Washington State University, Pullman, says: “Realizing the impact that I and others can have on someone’s success is fulfilling.”

Gerald Hector, vice president for financial affairs at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., has a simpler, easy-to-remember mantra: “We shape lives.” As Hector reflects: “It has been more than a job to me. Higher education is almost like ministry, because I really do enjoy what I do. Seeing these young people come in, wide-eyed, and leave as mature, well-rounded, developed individuals. Seeing them shed a tear while they get that degree. That’s what makes it all worthwhile for me.”

Localizing Your Mission

If pondering too abstractly about higher education’s mission is not a place where you can begin, thinking more specifically about your institution and its specific mission may help. As Kanter says: “The mission of higher education was critical. I think also [about Seattle] being a Jesuit institution, with the values of educating the whole person and the values of really educating our students to get out and make a difference in the world, was something unique about Seattle University within higher education.” 

Corey Bradford, senior vice president for business affairs at Prairie View A&M University, Prairie View, Texas, highlights that, along with his institution’s strong legacy as a historically black college and university and the institution’s rural location, it has a mission that extends into the community. Spending time spurring on economic and private development can “help the overall quality of life for students, faculty, and staff.” Projects such as building a retail center, initiating landscape beautification projects, and creating a new emergency operations center with the city can benefit everyone and add to the overall meaning of the institution’s mission, notes Bradford.

There are other ways that CBOs find to connect with the heart of the institution. Ed Kania formerly served as vice president for finance and administration at Davidson College, Davidson, N.C., and recently began his new role as CFO at Rollins College, Winter Park, Fla. He reflects on how others he has encountered have made the assumption that, because you are a CPA, you care only about the money. “They didn’t understand that CPAs are multidimensional people. We care about mission, we care about the people.” Kania continues: “The greatest skill set that helped me in the beginning was the ability to relate to people and engage them, to ask them what they wanted to do, what their objectives were, how that fit into the college’s mission. And then, become a thought partner or financial planning partner with them, to see if there were ways of accomplishing goals that they hadn’t imagined before.”

As today’s CBO manages through the many pressures that can overwhelm one throughout the day, focusing on what makes this job so unique can helpfully reorient oneself. While not easy to do, one way to accomplish this is to “get out of your comfort zone” and to remember that the “academic community has expertise in one area” and “they really need the expertise of financial professionals,” says Dalton. 

Lynn Coleman concurs: “We don’t just run the numbers, we also help people understand the numbers,” says the vice president of administration and finance at Howard Community College, Columbia, Md. “Finance can be a foreign language to many. We need to be helpful and go the extra mile to help people understand the finances, to help them do their jobs better.”

Passing the Torch

Remembering that mission is the one constant for everyone at an institution can be a great unifier. Focusing on the institution’s mission is one way to reflect on what your role and purpose are on your campus. Helping others focus on mission is likewise crucial. Honoring those special ways that remind you why you are in this line of work can be pivotal to helping others plug in as well, such as annual traditions like graduation that mark the importance of your work, or helping a student stay in school, or navigating a community through a crisis.

Jones holds brown-bag sessions and maintains an open door policy, because she wants to “make myself accessible by being a living, breathing person.” She gets to know all members of her staff—“knows all 278 names”—and takes the time to give voice to them to “get to solutions together.” Adds Kania: “We need to be able to translate vision from the trustees and the president who are at the 30,000-foot level to those of us who live at the 5,000-foot level daily, and bring people along without leaving them behind.”

MARTA DRAKE is senior vice president of education, development, and membership for NACUBO.

Related Topics

“We’re not here for finance and administration. We’re here to transform individual lives in society and make the human condition better.”

—Brett Dalton, Baylor University

“Finance can be a foreign language to many. We need to be helpful and go the extra mile to help people understand the finances, to help them do their jobs better.”

—Lynn Coleman, Howard Community College