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Business Officer Magazine

Ways to Work the Problem

A number of NACUBO 2007 award recipients discuss techniques for dealing with everything from the daily drill to the emerging trend.

By (edited) Margo Vanover Porter

Even the most experienced business officers have a difficult time flying solo, points out Robert E. Dixon, director, grants and contracts financial administration, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. “Bosses, staff members, and assistants coexist for a reason,” he says, “and the reason is simply that we can’t possibly know all the answers and do all the work ourselves. We accomplish very little on our own.” However, says Dixon, “The challenges in higher education can often be overcome by candor, commitment, and collaboration.” 

Dale C. Larson, director of finance, University of Dallas, agrees. He points out that the business officer’s career is rife with recurring challenges as well as one-off events. “Some crisis will always erupt,” he says. “Whether it is a budgeting, accounting, or personnel problem, you will eventually find a solution. Just stay calm, focus—and work the problem.”

These two recipients of the 2007 NACUBO individual awards are among seven honored leaders who shared with Business Officer their advice on leadership, opinions about current events, and predictions for the future. In a future issue of Business Officer, look for an article featuring recipients of NACUBO’s newest award, which recognizes institutional innovation in business and financial management.

Meet the Interviewees
Several 2007 NACUBO award recipients shared insights.
Steven J. Bridges, controller and business office director, University of Southern Indiana, Evansville (Rising Star Award)
Robert E. Dixon, director, grants and contracts financial administration, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater (Professional Development Award)
Edward J. Jennings, tax manager, University of Michigan–Ann Arbor (Tax Award)
Mary LaGrange, director of accounting, University of Nebraska–Lincoln (Rising Star Award)
Dale C. Larson, director of finance, University of Dallas (Daniel D. Robinson Accounting Award)
Mimi Lord, chief investment officer, Spero-Smith Investment Advisers, Inc., (Rodney H. Adams Endowment Management Award)
Robert K. Thompson, executive vice president, administration and finance, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta (Distinguished Business Officer Award)

Basis for the Best

What traits have contributed to your achievements in your field of expertise?

DIXON: A statement by Sir Winston Churchill best describes this for me: “You have only to endure to conquer.” The ability to accept the setbacks with the successes, all the while moving forward, creates opportunities. At the same time, it does take endurance to withstand the tough situations without losing heart. I’ve been lucky. Good times have been more prevalent than difficult ones. 

It could be, of course, that the tough times didn’t seem so bad because I enjoy what I do and the people I work with. Many people have invested themselves in me, and I know that my effectiveness is the result of others helping me along.

JENNINGS: My accomplishments can be attributed in large part to those who work with me. My staff is committed to excellence; my bosses are committed to compliance and are supportive of our efforts; and my peers share information and experiences that help me do what I do.

LAGRANGE:  I enjoy working with a variety of people and building teams in ways that maximize the strengths of each of us.

THOMPSON: The keys for me have been building relationships and networking with forward-thinking business leaders. Having a mentor early in my career and developing a passion for the mission and the role of the business officers have also played a role.

Name one characteristic that has helped you the most. 

BRIDGES: Observation has been a very useful tool in my career.  I’ve been fortunate to have strong mentors who provided a great foundation for fostering my growth. Learning through seeing what has worked for them—and what has not been helpful—has built my base of knowledge. Synthesizing these positive traits that I’ve watched in others has served me well.

LARSON: One aspect of achievement is cultivating an attitude of helpfulness. Often this involves looking for problems that no one else is addressing. By valuing the input of others and getting them involved in problem solving, you improve the final product. Remember that, while you may have identified the issue, your way of dealing with it may not be the best way.

LORD: I try to focus on quality. Generally, however, trying to attain high quality requires extra time, which is in short supply. So, my challenge is to try to reach this goal in efficient ways. 

A Chance to Advance

Some careers are a straight shot; others take a winding road. What lessons have you learned along your professional pathway?

JENNINGS: When it comes to my career, I have learned to trust in those who matter most to me. My wife, who knows me best, has provided me with valuable insights that have helped me deal with particularly stressful moments. She has given me advice that allows me to see things more clearly. She has always been able to see the forest from the trees and, when needed, the trees from the forest.

BRIDGES: My career has taken many unexpected turns. These diversions, sometimes disguised as daunting tasks, have ultimately been beneficial for me. I have learned to readily accept opportunities outside of my direct, accounting-career path; and these have provided great growth experiences. Two that come to mind are chairing our campus-card-implementation task force and serving as campus project manager for an enterprise-resource-system implementation.
My advice: Definitely do not be afraid to accept challenges—they can be very rewarding.

LAGRANGE: It is true that we must be open to new ideas and opportunities. Each of us can learn every day.

LORD: The instances of “straight shot” are becoming more and more unusual, as work environments change rapidly. It has been important for me to work in positive, upbeat surroundings and to look for new opportunities to add value. Given my tendency to become immersed in my work, I have learned to find the right balance between home life and work life.  In the end, my family will always get the highest ranking. 

What career coaching advice would you give younger colleagues?

DIXON: The world of higher education is quite small. The people you meet tend to remain in your life for a long time. This is good, because these acquaintances and friends can help you reach your goals. We all want to be the best, but there is always someone who can do it better.  Interestingly, those who are masters of certain skills are usually willing to explain how they do things. Listen to them.

THOMPSON: I tell younger colleagues that if they have passion for the job—and they focus on doing the right thing at the right time in the right place—they will be successful. A little patience and luck are also part of the recipe.

Where does volunteer activity fit into the picture?

LARSON: Few activities can contribute more toward one’s professional development than volunteering. NACUBO provides a fantastic forum for interacting with peers. Sharing what you have learned and listening to the lessons learned by others is invaluable.

THOMPSON: NACUBO provides me with a networking connection to my colleagues at other research universities as well as access to educational materials, conferences, and programs.  These have been valuable for learning the ropes and being active in providing customer-focused business and financial services.

JENNINGS: The attraction of higher education is the exchange and camaraderie between and among various peers and institutions. In my opinion, NACUBO represents the center or hub of that activity.

LAGRANGE: I have volunteered with NACUBO to build relationships with peers and to take advantage of the seemingly unlimited learning opportunities.

Trends to Tackle

What trends have you spotted—on campus or in the profession—that you think are of particular importance to NACUBO members?

THOMPSON: The most fascinating development today is the globalization of higher education and the creation of multinational universities, a phenomenon not unlike the rise of international corporations 20 to 30 years ago. This calls for business officers to be integrally involved in the movement toward multi-national universities, much as I am doing as Georgia Tech evolves its global strategy and model.

A related reality is that of global competitiveness. We need to devise structures and models that can be implemented to assure that U.S. universities are competitive leaders in the international marketplace for higher education.

DIXON: The area of student affairs will continue to grow. That is, environments and activities affecting students outside of the classroom will have a profound impact on institutional spending. Student health, housing, counseling services, tutoring programs, student organizations, cultural diversity, and leisure activities are necessary to attract, retain, and support students. However, these projects and programs do drive up the cost of attendance. As students, parents, and others continue to voice concerns over the cost of education, institutions may need to consider slowing the growth of extracurricular programs as a method of containing cost. To forecast the results of diminished programs, we’ll need to calculate the impact on admissions, retention, and student performance.

BRIDGES: The cost of an education continues to generate keen interest at local and national levels. We must position our institutions to respond to these legitimate inquiries. However, here in the United States, we provide a quality education. I do not want to see our profession cheapen the value of an education by overreacting to cost concerns. We must maximize resources—without reducing education quality—and coherently communicate to those questioning us just how we are doing this.

LORD: Having worked in the investment field for 20 years, I have been fascinated by the moves toward greater portfolio diversification of college endowments and by the growing importance of endowments to the overall budget of many institutions. Given the trend toward diminished government spending for education on a per-student basis, it appears that campus endowments could benefit from professional investment management as well as from sophisticated development and planned-giving programs.

Have you identified issues or changes that particularly concern you as a business officer?

Consider Nominating a Colleague

Has someone impressed you with his or her accomplishments in higher education administration? Nominate that person for recognition in NACUBO’s 2008 awards program. Six categories of individual awards will be presented at the NACUBO Annual Meeting, July 12–15, in Chicago.

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

The deadline for 2008 nominations is April 11, 2008. For more information, go to or contact Jeffrey Shields, vice president, community and member services, at 202.861.2552 or e-mail

LARSON: It is no longer true that auditing standards affect only auditors. Recent pronouncements from the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants regarding alternative investments and SAS 112 communication rules significantly increased our workload. Few controller offices received additional resources.

Another development is the expansion of footnote disclosures required by recent FASB pronouncements. Soon, we will be adding another set of fair value measurement disclosures to our to-do list for our year-end audit. While revisiting the conceptual framework on the elements of financial statements, the FASB might want to add to its to-do list a conceptual framework project for footnote disclosure requirements. It seems that too often footnote disclosures become a catchall for items of interest. NACUBO’s advocacy efforts can help here.

What is the biggest issue facing higher education today? Do you see any solutions in sight?

LAGRANGE: The affordability of higher education. We will all have to work together to build creative approaches to improving access to our institutions.

LARSON: Affordability concerns are not going away soon, and expense increases only work against cost-containment goals. The need to address growing student and parent consumerism has made us all revisit our capital plans. The cost of technology is also on the rise. However, an important issue is the effective use of the technology already acquired. We must understand how subsystems interact and determine whether their capabilities are being achieved. Thoroughness in implementation and expansion planning will reduce headaches everywhere.

DIXON: Like most people, I worry about the affordability of higher education. My concern is twofold. First, we must communicate more effectively the fact that higher education offers more than career training. During their college experience, people broaden their interests and perspectives and learn to think critically, giving society the impetus to continue to advance.

Second, if higher education becomes too expensive, some individuals will opt out and take another path. Sadly, those individuals may influence society toward the belief that higher education has lost its significance. Thus, the strides that the United States has made in science and technology over the past 60 years may slow.

What are some other issues that concern you?

BRIDGES: The cost of health care has serious implications for higher education and the entire business world. Many institutions have used benefits as a selling point to attract individuals who could earn better salaries in the corporate world. However, rising costs for such compensation may spell the end of such arrangements. Higher education may be forced to follow the lead of many private corporations, reducing some of the benefits that we have used to attract quality candidates. This paradigm shift may require higher education to review recruiting practices in an effort to compete for quality employees.

LORD: The crucial issue for higher education and for society at large concerns at-risk youth. We need to provide the necessary support and encouragement to help prepare these young people from lower socioeconomic levels for meaningful work that will allow them to lead rewarding lives. This requires much more focused attention and support.

I applaud the community colleges in this country for their practical approach of taking students from right where they are and preparing them for specific types of jobs or for further education.

THOMPSON: The biggest issue facing higher education in the United States is the maintenance of the leadership role higher education plays in the future economic prosperity of the country. That charge calls for working in the political and communications worlds to foster a positive climate.

Predictions and Preferences

What will higher education institutions be like in 10 years?

THOMPSON: I would hope that higher education is seen in a more positive light that reflects its role in maintaining America’s economic competitiveness in a global economy.

JENNINGS: The higher education community is on the verge of stepping beyond its traditional boundaries, broadening its capacity and seizing upon new and different opportunities to further the pursuit of education. With this development and growth, we, as stewards, will be challenged on strategic, economic, and financial levels. In many ways, these changes are ours to define and make. 

LORD: The emphasis on the sciences and technology will continue to grow, and higher education leaders will forge deeper relationships with business leaders. As this phenomenon evolves, industry and higher education will become stronger partners in developing new technologies and businesses and in preparing students for careers in growing fields.  

What else will change in the next decade?

DIXON: The aging of the higher education workforce and subsequent retirements will create a new workforce culture. As retirees leave, new people, ideas, and cultures will begin to emerge.

I also expect higher education to become increasingly consumer driven. Educational programs will become more personalized, and delivery of the programs will be made in any number of ways in a variety of locations.

If the cost of education continues to rise, I expect the federal government to step into the business of higher education and demand accountability. It would not surprise me to see Congress place stringent limits on the types of services or programs that can be paid with federal student aid funds.

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