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Business Officer Magazine

The More You Know

Several of NACUBO’s 2005 award recipients ruminate on leadership, changes on today’s campuses, and why soaking up knowledge is just as vital for business officers as it is for students.

By (edited) Pamela M. Wittmann

Several of the 2005 awardees recently talked with Business Officer about what it takes to be a leader, what continues to drive them in their profession, and how to prepare for future trends in higher education. It’s not surprising that the common refrain was, “you never stop learning.”

Meet the Interviewees

The following 2005 NACUBO award recipients shared insights on leadership with Business Officer:

Elizabeth Martinez Elizabeth N. Martinez, associate vice president for administration, Texas A&M International University (Rising Star Award) Larry Goldstein Larry Goldstein, president, Campus Strategies, Crimora, Virginia (Daniel D. Robinson Award)
John Biggs John H. Biggs, former chairman, president, and chief executive officer, TIAA-CREF (Rodney H. Adams Award) Janice Abraham Janice M. Abraham, president and CEO, United Educators Insurance and United Educators Management Company, Chevy Chase, Maryland (Professional Development Award)
Stewart Cobine Stewart Cobine, managing director, capital financing and tax management in the office of the treasurer, Indiana University at Bloomington (Tax Award) Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi Mohammad Humayon Qayoumi, vice president for administration and finance and chief financial officer, California State University–Northridge (Distinguished Business Officer Award)

Early Lessons Learned

Martinez: One of the most important lessons I have learned on the job is to listen and realize that my world is not everyone else’s world. What seems clear to me can be difficult for someone outside my area of responsibility. But it is my job to make sure that what I need to communicate is understood by all. When it’s not, I need to ask myself, “How I can communicate this better?”

What is the one piece of advice you wish someone would have given you when you started your career?

Biggs: Volunteer for leadership roles in nonprofit organizations. There is nothing more difficult in leadership than leading a school board or a church vestry. Getting people to agree to work in an appropriate way in the management of the school is, if anything, more difficult than being on the board of a major U.S. public company.

Cobine: Take your work and, just as importantly, your workplace relationships very seriously. But don’t take yourself too seriously.

Goldstein: Invest time in connecting with faculty and students. Although administrators have incredibly demanding jobs, ultimately they owe their employment to the academic side of the house. Late in my on-campus career I realized that although I tried to be very responsive to faculty and students, I was merely responding to their requests rather than being proactive. I realized how much more valuable I could be to my institution if I cultivated relationships with faculty and students, got to know more of them, and subsequently gained a better understanding of their concerns. I wish I had started doing this much earlier.

How has your past experience influenced your current professional endeavors?

Abraham: My first job after college was as a junior associate at NACUBO. I got the higher education bug then and never let go, except for a brief sojourn to international banking. I have followed my own advice of being passionate about what I do. I love the policies, politics, and operations of higher education. Although I sometimes joke that I now live on the dark side of higher education, focusing mainly on the events that don’t go well and end up as a claim against the institution, it is my ongoing passion to serve education that keeps me ticking and coming back for more. The real reason I travel so much and spend so much time visiting campuses is to remind me of why I am here and why United Educators exists. Exhausting as the travel is, it is the ultimate battery recharge.

Biggs: I think on a general basis it made me sensitive to a host of issues in higher education that influenced my strategic visions for TIAA-CREF. We changed our marketing of many products during my years there and also introduced several products that had a special appeal to the academic world. I do not think that I would have come to the conclusions that I did had I not spent all those luncheons sitting with the faculty on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis, debating the big issues of the world.

With Experience Comes Wisdom

Abraham: Serving on boards and committees has been a surprisingly powerful professional development experience, specifically watching Craig Bazzani and Ed MacKay lead the NACUBO board. I’ve learned a lot about leadership, developed the skills to get my point across while listening to my peers on their issues, and improved my ability to move issues forward in a peer-to-peer situation. These are important skills for campus or any business situation.

What qualities make an effective leader in higher education?

Cobine: To borrow from the quote that is often attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville, which opines that “America is great because America is good,” I believe that a great leader is someone who is both effective and good. In that context, an effective leader is a principle-centered person who places high value on ethics, integrity, and personal accountability. Such an individual needs to be able to take a collaborative approach to projects and problem solving while exhibiting a strong commitment to individual staff development. This kind of leader must be able to communicate technical material and complicated concepts in a manner that can be understood by non-technicians. Perhaps one of the most important qualities of an effective leader is that he or she understands that much more can be accomplished on a much timelier basis if people are not concerned with who gets the credit.

Martinez: An effective leader seeks to know the whole organization and strives to ensure that his or her areas of responsibility support the entire organization. Such a leader looks at issues from both sides of the fence. This person is accessible, approachable, and engaged with staff, working together to move all operations forward. The leader is focused and goal-oriented, always looking for that next new challenge, yet is able to make all staff members feel as if their issue is of singular importance.

Goldstein: There are three qualities that seem especially relevant in any leadership situation: self-awareness, trustworthiness, and adaptability. Leaders need to know themselves well and understand what motivates them, how they learn most effectively, and under what conditions they perform best. A good leader also must recognize the impact his or her actions and words have on others.

Abraham: A sense of humor, a thick skin, and passion for the work. For higher education I would expand the passion part to include a genuine interest in education. Business officers are in the ultimate support role, and if there isn’t a real interest and passion for higher education—the faculty research, the activities of the students, and the policy issues—then dealing with shared governance and the idiosyncratic nature of colleges and universities will become extremely frustrating.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started out?

Qayoumi: Have a clear understanding of the culture of higher education; learn institutional vision, values, and mission; identify how your job assists in realizing the goals; and do what you can to align your activities in meeting the mission and realizing organizational vision. After all, our effectiveness in our job can best be measured by our degree of alignment with institutional goals.

Martinez: Get thoroughly involved in all aspects of your organization, and know it well. Expand your circle of acquaintances. You will learn and be inspired by those different from you.

Forward Momentum

Qayoumi: The most valuable benefit that all of us enjoy in a university is the opportunity to continue our education, have full access to a good library, and work with a cadre of faculty and renowned scholars. This can serve as a major catalyst in professional growth and in achieving our personal goals. Having these resources also allows us to be active in professional associations by attending conferences and eventually making presentations and writing articles from which other colleagues can benefit.

What qualities will take an effective leader to the next level?

Goldstein: Leaders need to be adaptable. Because of the wide range of activities taking place on campuses, the competing priorities, and the lack of a single agreed-upon goal, higher education leaders must be prepared to respond to any number of challenges and problems. And because of the diverse nature of the challenges, leaders must be able to apply different skill sets based on the particular situation. Clearly, there is nothing “one size fits all” about higher education.

Qayoumi: A leader in higher education should protect and celebrate the covenant of institutional tradition and simultaneously be a formidable force for deep, structural change. One has to appreciate that universities are run by tradition more than rules and regulation. Rules can easily be amended, while tradition is a far more potent force that is so organically integrated in the organizational fabric that it cannot be recognized by a casual observer. More specifically, a leader must deeply believe in and embrace the values that American higher education is based on. In other words, understand and accept the saliencies of shared governance. This means that leaders have to be faculty members by conviction, astute managers by training, and politicians by temperament.

The Rising Star Award recipients have been women from the Texas A&M System for three of the past four years. What makes it an environment where employees thrive?

Martinez: Prior to joining the A&M system, I was part of a much smaller system in South Texas. The A&M system provided resources in the form of expertise and support at a level I had never seen. It’s a very supportive atmosphere where everyone wants you to succeed. I would say it’s the spirit of camaraderie—talented people working to better their organizations.

What has influenced your outlook or encouraged you to take the next steps in your professional development?

Abraham: I recently received a “great alumni” award from my high school. I got to go out on the 50-yard line at homecoming—it was a real treat. In addressing a group of the high school students, I told them to take risks, and that every great thing that has happened to me in my adult life came about because I took a risk. The move from being an international banker on Wall Street to Cornell; the move from my beloved Cornell to Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, to be CFO; my move back East to be president of UE; and of course the ultimate two risks of any grownup, marriage and parenting. Early on my mother told me to take risks, and it was sound advice. When I talk to people starting off, that’s my usually unsolicited advice. Somewhat ironic for someone whose life is now risk management, but true nonetheless.

With your extensive experience on multiple campuses, how have you worked collaboratively with other administrators?

Qayoumi: Collaboration is the necessary ingredient for success for any university administrator. The first step in collaboration is learning about the institutional culture, which necessitates studying not only the codified rules but also the latent institutional knowledge of how key decisions are really made in the institution, who the movers and shakers are, and how you can forge strategic alliances with them on issues of common interest. This implies that one should focus attention to only the few areas where collaboration will yield the greatest leverage. One way to identify common points of interest with other administrators across the university is by relating the goals of your operation to the institutional mission.

What are some trends that business officers will need to explore in the coming decade?

Martinez: Future trends for higher education most definitely involve technology. That will continue to play a huge part in our environment. Creative systems are being developed that change the way we currently do business. It’s important to embrace these changes and bring others along with you. Lean and efficient operations will be required and are achievable through technology.

Cobine: Business officers will need to become even more adept at developing—or helping shape—a strategic framework for the use and management of institutional resources in a manner that will provide for maximum support of institutional academic, research, public service, and economic development goals. In times of great financial stress, business officers will have to preserve the long-term financial stability of the institution’s balance sheet and expand unrestricted revenue streams that can be committed at the discretion of executive management. More than ever before, our environment demands that business officers be able to strike an appropriate balance within their sphere of influence between institutional rewards and risks. This will require business officers to enhance their levels of understanding of what their institutions’ short- and long-term risks and rewards are and how to effectively quantify, measure, and manage the risk/reward matrix. The underpinnings of this will continue to be business officers’ ability to enhance their levels of sophistication with respect to long-term strategic financial thinking, analysis, planning, measurement, and leadership.

Abraham: Competition for students, faculty, and donations will increase dramatically, both within the United States and internationally. Business officers will be put in the middle of tough debates, requiring them to shift resources and priorities to shape how colleges can thrive in this new competitive world. All of America’s traditional industries—health care, airlines, and manufacturing—have gone through or are going through enormous upheaval. Why would we think higher education would completely avoid the cost pressures and competitive challenges these industries have faced?

Goldstein: Many of the trends have already begun to surface. The demographic shifts that are occurring are going to have significant implications for higher education. First, we know that there will be incredibly large numbers of faculty and senior executives who will be leaving higher education for retirement in the very near future. Although there will be some internal promotions, there is a significant trend toward hiring from outside of higher education. This is especially true in the finance area. At last year’s NACUBO New Business Officers Program, more than half the participants had no prior experience working in higher education. Similar things are happening at the chief executive level—especially at public institutions where many top positions are being filled with politicians.

Other demographic shifts relate more directly to students. Diana Oblinger’s presentation at the 2005 annual meeting discussed the Net Generation. Students arriving on campus have grown up with computers and, for the majority of their lives, the Internet. They have high expectations and are not shy about expressing them. When I was in college it was noteworthy when a student changed majors. Today, students transfer to a different institution with relatively little thought. This approach to higher education places significant demands on campuses and has major implications for the finance officer.

Another trend that will be with us for a long time is the accountability challenge. Although there is clear evidence that the investment in higher education pays substantial returns, the increasing costs lead many to question the value provided by higher education. And every scandal—whether it involves intercollegiate athletics, excessive perks for a president, or scientific misconduct—leads to increased interest in trying to place controls on colleges and universities. Although the business officer has only minimal involvement in some of these issues, he or she will have to respond to the calls for increased accountability.

Qayoumi: Business officers should become more sensitive to current and future needs and desires of their customers. We are not our own customers and thus we need to keep in mind that the purpose of our unit lies outside itself. Our customers are holding us more accountable than ever before. Universities have become market-driven in every aspect of the organization. Students have far greater choice than in the past, since, with present technology, they do not have to set foot on a campus to have access to many of the sessions. In the current environment, students expect basic services on a 24/7 basis anytime from anywhere. Our business processes must be able to accommodate such requirements in transacting university business.

Are there specific issues related to the future of facilities and planning?

Qayoumi: Students who come to the campus today are not satisfied with being passive learners. Purely lecture-based instruction will fall short of their requirements. Therefore, it behooves the university planner to consider building the types of spaces that promote more dialogue and interaction for an active community of learners. Students expect spaces where they can work as teams and collaborate. The need for building collaborative spaces will be higher than constructing more lecture rooms. Students demand network access at practically every corner of campus. How many would go to a college game to watch their favorite team? They want to watch the replays on their Blackberries and send instant messages to their friends. Campus facilities planners must build the kind of robust infrastructure that can accommodate these demands.

Similarly, college students expect residence halls that are based around the creation of learning communities. Moreover, the learning environment boundaries between classrooms and residences are becoming fuzzy. As the university’s emphasis shifts from teaching-centered to learning-centered entities, campus facilities planners must take these dynamics into account. Finally, today’s students want to attend a university that looks cool. They expect far more recreational and entertainment venues, more choices and variety in food facilities, and more places where they can hang out and congregate. A campus’s physical condition and aesthetics are important to them.

Learning by Example

Who are your role models?

Nominate a Colleague

Want to shine the spotlight on a well-deserving individual in the higher education administration community? Nominate that person for recognition in NACUBO’s 2006 awards program. Six categories of awards will be presented at The Campus of the Future: A Meeting of the Minds in Hawaii, July 8–11.

  • Distinguished Business Officer Award—outstanding contributions to business and financial management in higher education
  • Rodney H. Adams Award—contributions to the advancement of knowledge and good practice in endowment and investment management 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
  • Tax Award—outstanding commitment to NACUBO’s tax advocacy efforts, educational programs, and publications focusing on higher education tax compliance and administration
  • Professional Development Award—notable contributions to NACUBO’s professional development activities and publications program
  • Rising Star Award—high potential to succeed as an executive in higher education The deadline for 2006 nominations is April 7.

For more information, go to the Awards page or contact Pam Wittmann, manager, volunteer programs, at 202.861.2503 or

Martinez: Being at a university, I believe my role models are all around me. The university is a magnet for outstanding, educated, accomplished individuals. Every day they inspire me to improve.

Abraham: Mary Lai (Long Island University) and Peg Healy (formerly of Bryn Mawr and Rosemont College) were role models for me. These women were early pioneers for all women in higher education administration and were extraordinarily helpful to me early in my career. After graduate school I worked as a banker at JP Morgan but wanted to enter the world of higher education management. I visited Mary and Peg on their campuses and both went way above the call to help and counsel me. I thought to myself, I want to be like Mary and Peg when I grow up—professional, respected by my peers, and giving all I can to higher education.

Qayoumi: Throughout my career I’ve been blessed to have the opportunity to work for and with several effective leaders. I have learned from each and every one of them, albeit by varying degrees. In addition, I have tried to study leaders who have been successful across different industries and to learn and practice those traits that may be relevant to specific situations that I have encountered.

Goldstein: Ray Hunt, former chief financial officer at the University of Virginia, is a consummate professional. Given his leadership ability and love of accounting and other higher education financial issues, he stimulated me to focus on the development of my technical skills in addition to my leadership abilities.

Cobine: I have been blessed to work with an entire company of role models over the years at Indiana University, through my association with the NACUBO Tax Council and our university tax peer group, and within the leadership team of my local congregation. But just within the higher education tax community, people like Ed Jennings (University of Michigan), Joe Irvine (the Ohio State University), John Copoulus (University of Massachusetts), Susan Brooks (University of North Carolina–Charlotte), and Kelly Farmer (University of Minnesota) are the kinds of professionals that I want to be like when I grow up. These people are first and foremost really good and caring people; beyond that, they embody a combination of vast technical knowledge, managerial wisdom, and the ability to communicate extremely well. They use their gifts and abilities for the benefit of not only their own institutions, but for the benefit of college and university students, faculty, and staff all over the nation.

Pamela M. Wittmann is manager, volunteer services, at NACUBO.