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Business Officer Magazine

Dynamics on the Double

When a new CFO arrived at Roosevelt University, she and her academic counterpart devised a deliberate plan: Build strong professional bonds and exhibit a solid front for all to see.

By James Gandre and Miroslava Mejia Krug

The interaction between a chief financial officer and a chief academic officer can be full of hopeful possibilities, positive impact, and the potential to provide a platform from which to achieve powerful results. It can also be one that is fraught with tension, misunderstanding, mistrust, and the occasional power play.

Our relationship began nearly three years ago, when Krug came to Roosevelt University, Chicago and Schaumburg, Illinois, from a large city agency—the Chicago Housing Authority—to serve as CFO, and Gandre had been provost for a mere eight months, after serving as a dean at the university for more than seven years.

Solving Problems Together

The American Council on Education and the National Association of College and University Business Officers bring together CAOs and CFOs for an annual two-day meeting to address ways to build effective partnerships and meet current economic challenges. The next workshop is scheduled for August 8-9, in Washington, D.C. For additional information, click here.

Together, as a partnership in service to students, faculty, and staff, we have built a strong relationship characterized by similar ways of looking at the business of higher education and different styles of leadership that complement each other. We also share a clear vision that our job is to make the institution stronger through solid and effective leadership and oversight of our individual areas, as well as through support and timely advice to the president.

We've come to these results by taking advantage of our newness at Roosevelt University in these positions and being constantly aware of opportunities by which to strengthen our bonds.

Establish an End Game

From the beginning, we knew we wanted to forge a noticeable public image of a strong, dedicated, and committed duo-one that the community needed to work with in ways that are healthy and not dysfunctional. We did this because so frequently the CFO and CAO are not seen as intrinsically linked, nor in partnership, with one another. When the positive perception does not exist, others often use a divide-and-conquer strategy, because that is sometimes the only way to get things done or it is the most expedient way to move along an agenda.

We also decided early on that if we were going to have the kind of relationship that was different from many we had heard about, we needed to communicate regularly. Two approaches have worked well for us:

One-on-one meetings. We decided to meet once each week for approximately one hour. In this way, we stay abreast of issues we are confronting together, as well as the challenges only one of us may be handling but the other should know about. This information, especially details that our counterpart may be dealing with alone, helps us not only understand each other's world, but also allows us to provide support for and sometimes advice to one another in the context of the greater university community and its priorities.

An example of this kind of mutual assistance is our decision that all academic affairs financial requests be addressed by Gandre's office rather than by the finance office (which is the way we'd been doing it before). In this way, the provost and his staff are more involved and aware of the academic unit needs. Another benefit is that the new process stops the frequent "end runs" we were experiencing when a person couldn't get what he or she wanted from one of us so would approach the other.

Conversations with the president. We soon realized that it would be best to meet with the president regularly as a trio, and we convened biweekly meetings with him. These sessions with the president are critical, because they create the opportunity for ongoing, richer, more meaningful—often quicker and more timely—dialogue about continuing and unforeseen issues.

Just lately, for example, these regular meetings—and other impromptu ones—are helping us as we deal with finalizing the budget for the board of trustees. While we oversee the budget development process, along with an eight-member planning and budget committee, the president obviously must be closely involved and ultimately approve the budget before sending it to the board.

Overall, we've found that our time together, both with the president and without him, is critical to our work and our effectiveness.

Seize Opportunities

A few projects have come our way that we've been able to turn into mutually beneficial learning experiences.

Bonding over bonds. Interestingly, it was a bond sale of $180 million that linked us closely and deeply. The bonds financed our 32-story mixed-use building (which includes a 625-bed residence hall, a business college, science labs, student life spaces, fitness facilities, and student service offices) that is rising up out of the ground right now. The deal also refinanced outstanding variable-rate bonds into fixed-rate bonds.

Recognizing the importance of the transaction to the university, we created a three-point plan, in which we:

  • Hosted visits to campus by two rating agencies.
  • Conducted numerous investor calls.
  • Presented the details of the transaction to a large group of stakeholders, including university administrators and board members, underwriters and financial advisers, a legal team, and our design and construction team.

This project, which we continue to oversee together, includes decisions on construction and design issues, and budgets, as well as general week-by-week administration and monitoring.

Rallying over a revised planning and budgeting process. The university has also changed the planning and budget process. Our constitution formerly mandated that the provost lead the planning process and the chief financial officer lead the budget process. Each participated as a member of the other's committee.

After our first year of working together, the senate, president—and ultimately the board of trustees—ratified a new constitution of the university faculty. It mandated that the planning and budget process be combined into one longer process spanning the regular academic year (September through spring); involve more faculty (two from each of the six colleges, instead of simply eight total faculty); and establish the CAO and CFO as co-leaders.

This revised process has worked beautifully this year in the following ways:

  • Participating faculty are more involved and understand the budget process far better than in the past.
  • We now have the time to explain the budget more thoroughly and delve more deeply into the details that illuminate both opportunities and stressors.
  • As a consequence, the committee has been able to provide greater input and guidance as we construct the budget for the president's, and ultimately the board's, approval.

With this format, committee members also see the two of us sitting side by side working in concert with each other toward an end goal of holistic good for the university.

Engaging with a new admission and enrollment committee. Within the past eight months, we joined our provost at our suburban campus to meet with the vice president of enrollment and student services, and the vice president of government relations and university outreach (who also oversees marketing), to form a new admission and enrollment committee. The idea is to create a more cohesive and comprehensive enrollment strategy via collaboration with the academic, finance, enrollment, admission, and marketing units. This new group meets weekly and considers both tactical and longer-term strategic goals. The result: greater group understanding of institutional efforts and outcomes as well as new tactics and ideas that bubbled up from external input from both the academic and finance sides of the operation.

Cultivating and nurturing a relationship like the one we have takes time, energy, and commitment. But, in the end, the payoff is enormous for the well-being of the institution, the president, and for us—in terms of the basic ease and pleasure in our daily work lives.

JAMES GANDRE is provost and executive vice president, and MIROSLAVA MEJIA KRUG is senior vice president for finance and administration, and chief financial officer, Roosevelt University, Chicago and Schaumburg, Illinois.