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Business Officer Magazine

Leading the Way at Warp 7

The dizzying pace of campus life is daunting, say several NACUBO 2006 award recipients. Not to mention the shift away from top-down dynamics to a collaborative environment.

By (edited) Margo Vanover Porter

The speed at which information must be assimilated and assessed just keeps increasing, adds Suzanne E. Green, associate vice president, financial services, California State University–Sacramento. “The pace of campus life is approaching warp 7.”

Coming from individuals in the higher education community who’ve been recognized for their extraordinary skills and contributions, these comments give credence to the shifting skill sets and escalating pace required of institution leaders.

Several of the 2006 awardees shared with Business Officer their insights on the changes affecting their professional priorities, what it takes to be effective in a shifting environment, and how earlier experiences have shaped their abilities to cope with such challenges.

What It Takes

What skill sets do business officers need to be effective at today’s institutions?

GREEN: In my view, communication and political navigation skills are the most critical. [This is]  because so much of a business officer’s work has to do with reinforcing and strengthening the links between the university constituencies, inspiring staff, and making business issues relevant to nonbusiness folks. 

PATTERSON: Leadership, wisdom, diplomacy, collaboration, creativity, and problem solving are at the top of my list.

HAWK: [For me it is] the capability to understand and deal with a large array of disparate issues simultaneously, the willingness to accept responsibility for issues and problems not directly in our control, and the ability to work effectively in an environment where there is great diversity in community members’ backgrounds, perspectives, expectations, and skill sets.

BROOKS: I think the most valuable skills in the 21st century are consensus building and collaboration. A business officer can have the best ideas around, but if she can’t get people to listen to them and buy into them, she will not succeed.

Have the skill sets changed in the past decade?

CAMPBELL: Yes, the emphasis has shifted from technical abilities to the ability to communicate, persuade, lead, and inspire.

Patterson: Business officers have to be more innovative than ever. More and more [we] are called on to meet service expectations with fewer resources. One minute a business officer may be fielding an HVAC complaint from an academic department and the next assisting the president with the strategic plan or a major gift.

Guiding Experiences

Introducing the Honorees  

Richard E. Anderson, director of the higher education practice, Hammond Associates, St. Louis, (Rodney H. Adams Award)

Susan H. Brooks, associate vice chancellor for finance, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (Tax Award)

Carol N. Campbell, executive vice president and chief financial officer, Arizona State University (Distinguished Business Officer Award)

Kathy Kamm Elliott, associate vice president and controller, Oklahoma State University (Rising Star Award)

Suzanne E. Green, associate vice president of financial services, California State University–Sacramento, (Professional Development Award)

Thomas R. Hawk, vice president of planning and finance and treasurer, Community College of Philadelphia (Distinguished Business Officer Award)

Roger D. Patterson, associate vice chancellor for finance, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Daniel D. Robinson Award)

When executives look back on their careers, they often can zero in on a turning point.  What was yours?

HAWK: Mine was the decision to move to the chief business officer role after serving as a faculty member and working in several positions in academic affairs leadership.

CAMPBELL: I began my career in higher education in the mid 1980s as the director of accounting at the University of Minnesota. Within a very short time, we experienced a great deal of turnover, and I was quickly promoted. It was a make-or-break opportunity, and I was fortunate to be able to take advantage of it.

ELLIOTT: My turning point came when a mentor convinced me that I had time to become involved in the state, regional, and national organizations. Before that, I believed I could not afford to take time to attend various conferences and workshops. I now know I can’t afford not to go. The networking is invaluable.

PATTERSON: Truthfully, there were several turning points, but perhaps the most important was just having the opportunity to attend college. I came from fairly humble beginnings. My parents were from an era when parents often would not borrow money to send a child to college. In that day, you might borrow for tangible assets, such as a home or car, but not as an investment in the future, like higher education. So I worked full time while attending school full time. So much of my career has been dependent on having the foundation of a secondary education.

Give us a specific example of a lesson you learned early in your career and how it has guided you since.

PATTERSON: My first job in higher education was with internal audit. I discovered people react differently when presented with conflict. Some departments easily accept recommendations, and others exhibit strong resistance. Some internal auditors are willing to negotiate, and others are immovable. 

I’ve since found that most successful people do not feel that their position on an issue is the only right one. They don’t take issues personally. They are willing to find common ground or to plant seeds that will germinate later—even if it becomes someone else’s idea. They put the organization in front of their own interests.

HAWK: Lesson learned—it is important to remain objective and not overreact to incomplete or inaccurate information; for example, avoid management by rumor. I try hard to get valid perspectives from varying viewpoints on an issue and actively look for factual information to support opinions. I believe strongly in cross-validation of information from multiple sources.

Telling Trends

What’s ahead for higher education in the areas of technology, facilities, and fundraising?

PATTERSON: I believe the greatest technology gains will be in research. We are just scratching the surface in terms of new discoveries in science, medicine, and engineering and the related benefits that will be delivered to society. In the facilities area, I think we will see an even greater focus on green buildings. Campuses are making notable strides in water and energy efficiencies, indoor air quality, and improved site and materials selection, but we have a long way to go before all campus facilities are as green as they can be.

Fundraising will be viewed as a core generator of resources rather than as a necessary evil. So often, universities want the resources that fundraisers generate, but they are not willing to justify the investment in fundraisers. It’s ironic that we don’t view faculty seeking research dollars in the same light.  I believe the negative view of fundraising will change as research funding flattens, state institutions face continued pressures from the state, and students and parents press for lower tuition and fees. 

HAWK: We are working on two major facility projects at the present time. We are making the assumption that future facility requirements will be significantly different from today’s typical buildings. We envision an environment where seat time in a traditional classroom setting will be greatly reduced with hybrid and distance teaching and learning strategies becoming increasingly the norm. Formal and informal learning spaces will have to be much better integrated on commuter campuses so that busy adult students can efficiently and effectively take advantage of team projects and collaborative learning.

Increased competition in the adult higher education market will force rapid adoption of successful practices in place at other institutions. Competing successfully will require highly flexible facilities that can be easily modified to meet changing program requirements and evolving student expectations. Increasingly, partnerships involving resource sharing will be necessary to offer academic programs requiring high-cost equipment and specialized instructional facilities.

BROOKS: Higher education will need a lot of fundraising to support the demands of technology and facilities. Deferred maintenance is a chronic problem on most college campuses, and—whether public or private—allocating funds to keep buildings from falling down just doesn’t carry the same cachet as a new graduate program in bioinformatics or forensic accounting.

With technology changing so rapidly, the frustration for our campus, and I suspect for most, is that our students are used to high-tech features and equipment. It’s very difficult for us to make the same level of services available on limited technology budgets.

ANDERSON: I’ll add investing to that list of challenges. In the markets, the dominant trend has been the success of the Federal Reserve Bank in avoiding serious economic downturns. But the Fed’s success has created a moral hazard. Collectively, current investors have too much money and too little fear. Prices of almost all asset classes are expensive. Volatility, a measure of investor concern, is at an all-time low. This is a recipe for lower returns in the future and, potentially, a cataclysmic economic event. If I’m correct and future returns are disappointing, the projections for fundraising and for parental financing may also need to be reconsidered.

What is the most pressing issue facing higher education today?

PATTERSON: Higher education still does a very poor job of explaining what we are about and how we go about doing it. We need to do a better of job stressing how important the transfer of knowledge—from faculty to students and from faculty to discoveries—really is to our future as a nation. From advancements in science, to medicine, to agriculture, to technology, and even economic development, the U.S. is going to fall behind other nations if we are not careful.

We also need to focus more on the transparency issue. I’m amazed that the public still thinks institutions are flush in money because of all the donations we receive and the image athletic programs carry. We need to do a much better job of communicating what we truly have at our disposal as far as unrestricted funds. I think the general public still perceives the cost of attending college as the amount they pay in tuition and fees. We need to do a better job of explaining the true cost of attendance.

GREEN: Our biggest challenge is to evolve public and private universities to meet the changing lifestyles of the next generation… and the one after that and the one after that. The growing expectation for online, on-demand delivery of goods and services and the sheer pace of change in technological capability will challenge us to continuously assess and improve the university. 

ANDERSON: As Thomas Friedman, among numerous others, has pointed out, the United States is now competing with the world. X-rays are being read and legal documents are being drafted in India. China is building a world-class technical education system. We cannot rest on our considerable laurels. We must work vigorously to improve not only the output of our colleges and universities but the efficiencies of the higher education process. 

CAMPBELL: We must all keep an eye on the globalization of higher education. New institutions are being developed on a massive scale in China, India, and other emerging nations. This will create a new dimension of competition for faculty and for students. It will also create opportunities for collaboration on a scale we still do not fully appreciate.

BROOKS: I think one of the most pressing issues in our society, and consequently on our campuses, is how to make certain that our basic freedoms—such as speech, religion, and assembly—do not become the weapons that destroy us.

ELLIOTT: There are so many institutions and a limited amount of resources—and students.

Leadership Models and Methods

Define leadership, and provide an example of an individual who exemplifies this characteristic—perhaps someone you've tried to emulate.

GREEN: Leadership equals the ability to engage colleagues into caring about the vision and mission you hold dear. The individual who most exemplifies this definition for me is Robert C. Maxson, former president of California State University–Long Beach.

HAWK: Leadership requires interpreting an organization’s mission with a clear articulation of vision and goals and then providing those responsible for achieving the vision and goals with the coaching, resources, and degrees of freedom needed for success. Good leadership does not involve micromanagement; it recognizes that there is often more than one acceptable pathway to achieve desired goals. 

When you look around at the effective leaders in this profession, what one characteristic or skill do they have in common?

HAWK: Resiliency, which I am defining as the ability to develop and deliver a timely, effective response to any important issue or crisis within one’s areas of responsibility without undue panic, anger, or wasted efforts.

GREEN: Effective leaders have developed the means to get the best out of everyone with whom they come into contact. They read people well, know how to bridge interpersonal gaps, and provide each with an opportunity to participate and contribute.

ANDERSON: Certainly integrity. But leaders must go beyond high moral standards. They must have vision, commitment, and extraordinary communication skills.

BROOKS: The really good leaders are not the ones telling you how good they are. They’re the ones who get things done by working hard, listening well, and being creative with resources.

CAMPBELL: The leaders in our profession, while very different in so many ways, have a number of common characteristics. First, they exhibit high ethical standards. I have never met a leading business officer who did not have integrity. They are good communicators; they are energetic and hard working; and they are perpetual students of the profession.

What role has professional development played in your success and where do you look for professional development opportunities?

HAWK: Because I spent my early career in academic affairs and then moved to a leadership role in business affairs without having come up through the ranks, I needed to master a wide range of technical issues in a short period. Quick, targeted professional development opportunities were essential for me to meet the expectations of my president and board, as well as the staff that reported to me. NACUBO and EACUBO resources were very important.

ANDERSON: I slithered into higher education as a graduate student so, obviously, I needed a lot of mentoring. Certainly,…NACUBO played a major part in my development. Caspa Harris [former chief staff officer of NACUBO] first involved me with the organization when I was a student in the early 1970s, and that relationship has lasted and has grown to this day.

GREEN: I cannot imagine how a higher education business officer can be successful today without continuous professional development. Keeping on top of emerging issues, understanding your university’s environment and how it’s changing, establishing and growing a network of colleagues, and re-energizing yourself are all benefits of continuous professional development.

BROOKS: When I first began my career it was at a very poor, historically black institution. In my 16 years there, I attended two professional development workshops. I did not realize how critical such activities were in understanding the changes in the industry, in identifying best practices, and in developing networking relationships with colleagues. Having the opportunity to participate in workshops and conferences made all the difference in the world. It was the difference between doing the same thing every day for the rest of your life—and having your eyes opened to the possibilities.

Enhancing NACUBO’s Awards Program to Honor Innovation   

In addition to its wide array of leadership awards to individuals, NACUBO will present a new award honoring institutional leadership—the NACUBO Innovation Award—at the 2007 Annual Meeting in New Orleans, July 28-31. Nominations are currently open for both categories of awards. Here are the details.

New Award Commends Institutions’ Innovative Efforts
The NACUBO Innovation Award recognizes the achievement of higher education institutions in two broad areas:

  • process improvement, in which institutions have successfully re-engineered, redesigned, or otherwise improved the delivery of an administrative service, and
  • resource enhancement, in which creative efforts have reduced institutional costs, increased revenues, or improved productivity

Recipients will be selected from a nationwide pool of nominees representing each of NACUBO’s primary membership segments: research universities, comprehensive and doctoral institutions, small institutions, and community colleges. In addition to invitations to the awards ceremony at the 2007 NACUBO Annual Meeting, honorees will receive two complimentary registrations for the annual meeting, national recognition in Business Officer, and a display plaque.

Individual Awards Recognize Role Models

Consider nominating an individual in the higher education administration community whose actions and contributions exemplify the highest level of professionalism. Six categories of awards will be presented at the annual meeting.

  • Distinguished Business Officer Award—outstanding contributions to business and financial management in higher education
  • Rising Star Award—high potential to succeed as an executive in higher education
  • Daniel D. Robinson Award—continuous commitment to the advancement of college and university accounting and financial reporting through volunteer service with NACUBO
  • Rodney H. Adams Award—contributions to the advancement of knowledge and good practice in endowment and investment management in higher education
  • Professional Development Award—notable contributions to NACUBO’s professional development activities and publications programs
  • Tax Award—outstanding commitment to NACUBO’s tax advocacy efforts, educational programs, and related publications

To submit nominations for individual or institution awards, go to You’ll find complete descriptions of the awards, details of the application requirements, and a list of previous recipients. All nominations must be postmarked by April 6. For more information, contact Jeff Shields, vice president, community and member services, at 202-861-2552 or e-mail

In addition to working hard, you volunteer a lot, too.  What’s your time-management secret?

PATTERSON: Hiring and developing a great staff. I’m also a strong advocate of the 80/20 rule.  Concentrating on the 20 percent that really matters makes one more efficient. Of course, long hours can’t be avoided at times.

BROOKS: There’s no secret. It doesn’t all get done. It doesn’t even half get done. …if you could only see my kitchen floor!

GREEN: I have a deep commitment to doing what I say I’ll do, so I’ve learned to carefully choose which commitments I make.

HAWK: I almost never leave the office without organizing my desk and making sure that I have what I need for the next day’s schedule of activities. I maintain files on major projects that allow me to pick them up at any time, know exactly where I am, and not lose time regrouping as to where I left off.

I am compulsive about due dates and try to avoid the pressures and inefficiencies that result from missed deadlines or incomplete projects. I use the train rather than drive to work, which gives me an extra hour a day of mostly stress-free and uninterrupted work time. A lot of my volunteer background work gets done during that time. I have been fortunate to work with a highly talented staff that has always provided tremendous support when work pressures have been the greatest.

What book would you recommend that your peers read? 

ELLIOTT: This is going to sound crazy, but I've been recommending Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story, by Kurt Eichenwald. This book, which explains Enron's implosion, really makes you take a second look at the environment you work in and how people justify their actions.

GREEN: I recommend Difficult Conversations, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen, and Roger Fisher, because, despite our best intentions, our communications too often go awry. The multitude of constituencies and activities, as well as the decentralized structure on most college and university campuses, lend themselves to a state of almost constant social turmoil. Business officers must be able to talk through disagreements in ways that solve problems—or at least do not make them worse.

PATTERSON: If your campus has a summer reading requirement for incoming freshman, then read that. That’s what I try to do. Read literature or science books written by your faculty or perhaps a business publication, such as The Economist, or a science magazine, such as Scientific American. Talk to faculty in the field about the latest discoveries. Get out of the ivory tower and get involved with your mission areas. It’s important to stay connected to your faculty. 

What do you find most difficult or challenging about your profession?

PATTERSON: The sheer inertia of large nonprofit organizations. The illustration of trying to turn an aircraft carrier on a dime is very true. Often creative ideas can be developed much more easily than they can be implemented. Building consensus, dealing with cultural barriers, and weaving one’s way around bureaucratic rules are important success factors, but they take a lot of patience and time. It would be nice if our industry could move a little closer to the pace of the corporate world.

GREEN: Blending constituent expectations with institutional goals and resources is my biggest challenge. I’m sure the answers to this question are different for each college and university, and I believe those responses constitute the art of higher education administration.
HAWK: Campus constituents assume that my failure to resolve a physical or procedural issue immediately indicates a lack of concern or an unwillingness to respond on my part.  I am sometimes challenged by the immediacy associated with many competing demands for my help.

BROOKS: This is a tough question because I love working in education. My father was a public school teacher, my husband is a public school teacher, and my mother worked at several universities during her career. So education is in the gene pool. But declining resources and greater demands make it difficult to be thoughtful about our work. We race from project to project trying to keep our heads above water with little or no time to be thoughtful about what we’re doing or to plan for the future. But I can’t imagine working in any other profession.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, compiled and edited this article for Business Officer.