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Few Secrets: A Key to Collaboration

To build financial literacy, Marquette University tells (almost) all about its financial performance.

By John C. Lamb

When I came up through the ranks in higher education, it was often like pulling teeth to get anyone to help you understand what was going on at the institution. That's not true anymore. In fact, at Marquette University, Milwaukee, we now spend a lot of time on financial literacy as part of our strategic plan. (Read also "Creating Better C-Suite Partnerships" in the July/August 2015 issue of Business Officer magazine.)

The idea is to take collaboration beyond the global, upper level so that it applies to everybody. That becomes achievable only when the university community at large—not just faculty and staff, but also students—knows exactly how the institution is performing financially: Where does the money come from? And where does it all go? 

In 2014, Marquette's finance office began producing an interactive, easy-to-read, Web-based dashboard that provides metrics in 10 key areas, including enrollment, operating surplus, cash investments, endowment market value, and financial aid. Updated monthly, the information, which is presented in layman's terms, is all there for anyone to see. To access Marquette's financial dashboard, visit www.marquette.edu/financeoffice and click on "Dashboard" in the upper left corner of the page. By simply clicking on a chart, you can read more about a topic and how it is trending.

For example, a nine-year chart of students paying full-time tuition may show that the university's undergraduate enrollment has remained stable in recent years. A five-year graph comparing student cash payment collections to total cash and aid processed may reveal that students and families are contributing more through private funding sources. In the drill-down sections, we include finance-related institutional news, such as the timelines for capital projects and the master planning process now underway. We also delve into more details, such as explaining the two "triggers" that currently have the strongest impact on the university's operations.

Positive Returns

If neither the graphical display nor the additional information is enough, you can simply click the "Ask a Question" button. We promise to respond within 24 hours. The reaction to the dashboard has been overwhelmingly positive; people really appreciate being able to look at the university's financial picture and ask questions at any time of the day. 

With the exception of salaries, Marquette has shared data internally for years, giving deans access to each school's financial profile. Now, building on the success of the general dashboard, the finance office is working with the College of Arts and Sciences and the Law School to create specialized dashboards just for them. Currently, the dashboards are available just to the deans, but eventually we'll make them transparent to the rest of the institution. Each dashboard will contain basic financial information for that school, broken down by department and responsibility, plus enrollment, credit hours taught, research dollars, and so forth.

Other initiatives to improve financial literacy include:

  • A financial glossary, posted online, that explains terms such as net assets and book value, as well as acronyms such as ECAR and GAAP. 
  • A Finance Partners Group that brings together business officers from every unit on campus. The finance office hosts the monthly discussion, which focuses on the issues of the day.
  • A mentoring program, sponsored by the finance office, that provides other staff members the opportunity to learn more about the university's finances. We plan to start small, mentoring the business officers on campus, then roll out the program to the whole university and encourage deans and faculty to participate. 

The dashboards and other initiatives help us get the word out that finance doesn't have to be so scary. As you educate people about the numbers—and the language behind them—they develop a deeper appreciation for what the finance office does. In turn, the finance office gains a better understanding of other constituents' perspectives. Then we are all in a better position to work together to benefit the entire university.

JOHN C. (CHUCK) LAMB is vice president of finance and treasurer at Marquette University, Milwaukee.


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