The Way We Were
From solitary administrator to collaborative leader, the role of the chief business officer has grown in stature over the decades, as the scope of responsibility has increased.
Edited by Sandra R. Sabo
Before entering higher education administration, Joseph P. "Joe" Mullinix worked as an auditor and senior financial analyst and spent a decade at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C. In 1984, he brought his multifaceted experience to Columbia University, New York, as a vice provost charged with establishing a more analytical framework for academic and financial planning.
Not long after arriving at Columbia, "I proposed what I mistakenly thought was a modest change in the budgeting process," laughingly recalls Mullinix, now the deputy president of administration at the National University of Singapore. "The arts and sciences VP turned beet-red as he announced that some new guy in the provost's office was not going to put his funds at risk."
That same scenario would likely play out differently today. The invisible line between administration and academia, which Mullinix had inadvertently crossed, has softened in the intervening decades. Along the way, the visibility—and responsibilities—of senior financial officers has risen markedly.
Having a strong financial knowledge base will solidify a CBO's position on the senior leadership team even as he or she deals with issues that are not, strictly speaking, related to finance.
"Historically, business officers sat in the back room and were tasked to ensure the lights were on, the budgets were solid, and all those pesky little reports were completed," says Patricia A. "Patty" Charlton, senior vice president for finance and administration and chief of the president's staff at the College of Southern Nevada, Las Vegas. "Now, we are more at the forefront, working alongside presidents and provosts."
"In the past, someone in my position would have been viewed as being responsible for a set of activities that needed to get done quietly and mostly behind the scenes. Today, the role requires being much more a visible partner," confirms Nim Chinniah, vice president for administration and chief financial officer at the University of Chicago.
While Chinniah reports to the president, for example, he works for and with the provost, deans, and the executive vice president for medical affairs. "It isn't just a hierarchical relationship," he continues, "they are my partners."
A Brief History
In the 50 years since NACUBO's founding, what has propelled the chief business officer out of the back office and into the senior leadership circle?
James E. "Jay" Morley Jr. ticks off a laundry list of factors, including increasing government oversight, skyrocketing energy costs, changing student demographics and enrollment, and decreasing levels of government funding. Morley is past president and CEO of NACUBO, and earlier was senior vice president and treasurer at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. He notes, "The traditional role of the CFO as the institution's 'chief bookkeeper' began to disappear as presidents and trustees saw the need for more sophisticated financial, business, and administrative management."
Mary M. Lai offers a more general explanation. "Things became more complicated," says Lai, treasurer emerita and senior adviser at Long Island University. When she became the bursar at Long Island University in 1947, for example, the young institution relied on tuition—of $300 per year, per student—for its entire operating budget; it did little fundraising and didn't receive any research dollars. As veterans returning from World War II took advantage of the GI Bill, the university's enrollment and faculty grew exponentially, straining systems and facilities designed for far fewer students.
The rapid growth experienced by Long Island University similarly played out on campuses throughout the country, prompting institutions to undertake ambitious construction projects and expand staff. In the 1950s and 1960s, as increased funding for education-related programs and scientific research flowed out of congressional coffers, regulations and recordkeeping increased as well—but higher education bore the brunt of the escalating administrative costs.
"When the federal government got into the act, colleges and universities added vice presidents to oversee programs authorized by the Higher Education Facilities Act of 1963 and the Higher Education Act of 1965," says Lai, who was promoted to this new layer of staffing. By the mid-1970s, the struggling U.S. economy led to declines in enrollment and research funding and produced what Lai calls "another pivotal moment" for business officers.
"During the building boom of the 1960s, many schools had overextended themselves, and the [economic] problems of the 1970s led to major issues," she recalls. "As schools cut back on their budgets, more students and faculty wanted to get involved in the budget process, to protect their areas of interest." Everyone on campus started looking to the chief business officer—the person with the most in-depth knowledge of the budget—to identify solutions to the wide range of financial issues that began to arise. Lai says, "As the chief business officer, I didn't simply record financial activities anymore; I usually led the budget discussions."
By 1987, when NACUBO celebrated its 25th anniversary, chief business officers quoted in the pages of Business Officer emphasized the need to become a Renaissance man, capable of handling whatever financial, business, and administrative responsibilities were placed on a CBO's institutional plate. As NACUBO now celebrates its 50th anniversary, their predictions have proved right on target.
"In some respects, my role changes from day to day," says Patty Charlton. "I might be a psychologist one day, talking with employees concerned about their jobs. The next day I might be the public information officer," talking with the media, legislators, trustees, or business representatives. "In just the last three years, my position has expanded in ways that I could never have anticipated," she continues. "Whatever doesn't fall into academic affairs or student affairs now reports to me."
More on the Plate
Similarly, Nim Chinniah's portfolio has expanded to include more operational responsibilities in the five years he has been at the University of Chicago. The chief information technology officer and the university's police chief now report to Chinniah, who also oversees facilities, human resources, risk management and audit, environmental health and safety, financial services, business diversity, and real estate.
"Everything in my area has operational intensity," Chinniah explains. "Policing, IT operations, utilities, and emergency response all have a 24/7 nature, so it made sense to group them together for greater synergy and efficiency."
Chinniah and Charlton both describe serving as a senior adviser or consultant to the president-another change from the way their positions would have been viewed just a decade ago. With the presidents of their respective institutions, the two routinely discuss issues that go far beyond finances. "In this role, I coordinate various efforts and activities with the other vice presidents, who see me as an adviser on various issues and initiatives," Charlton says. Charlton also assumes the leadership role in the president's absence.
At an EACUBO meeting in 1960 Mary Lai first heard another business officer talk about the marvels of a new IBM tabulating machine that could recognize student registration.
Joe Mullinix links this expanding role to increasing external pressures exerted by a combination of reduced government funding, lower returns on investments, and financial uncertainty for prospective students and their families. These intense cost pressures affect everything on campus. Because institutions are not always able to recruit experienced financial leaders who also have expertise in areas as diverse as HR, IT, and construction, he notes, true CBOs are becoming harder to find.
"More CBO jobs are being split into multiple VPs reporting to the president, which often leads to a diminution of the business and financial function," says Mullinix. "I find that trend unfortunate, especially since provosts are taking on more operational responsibilities beyond the traditional chief academic officer function, and could benefit from a close partnership with strong business leaders."
Having a strong financial knowledge base—and expertise in financial reporting and accountability—will solidify a CBO's position on the senior leadership team even as he or she deals with issues that are not, strictly speaking, related to finance. In fact, Charlton sees this bottom-line mind-set and its accompanying skills as contributing to opportunities for career development. "With budgets changing along with fluctuating enrollments and funding, a president with a strong financial background who understands the day-to-day flow is advantageous," says Charlton, who predicts that many CBOs will go on to become presidents or chancellors.
Wendy B. Libby has already gone down that path to a college presidency. Before assuming her current position as president of Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, she served six years as president of Stephens College, Columbia, Missouri-a private, four-year institution that had begun the new millennium in frail financial health. "Enrollment was down, the college had been operating for years with a deficit, and it didn't have an endowment that could support competitive financial aid packages," Libby recalls. "In fact, I believe the search committee selected me—someone who had not followed the normal route to a college presidency—because I understood the financial side of higher education."
Previously, Libby had been director of administrative operations for Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning in Ithaca, New York; chief financial officer of Westbrook College, Portland, Maine (now part of the University of New England); and vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer at Furman University, Greenville, South Carolina. At Cornell, Libby says, she learned the theoretical underpinning for why universities do what they do financially. Dealing with Westbrook's financial difficulties for six years gave her a deeper understanding of the many different functions that make an educational institution whole. And at Furman, she had the opportunity to help leverage quality academics and an effective fundraising structure into campus growth—28 capital projects in the eight years she spent there.
Libby drew on all those experiences as president of Stephens College, where she spearheaded a five-year strategic initiative known as the Renaissance Plan. The plan touched on areas in which she already had developed expertise—thanks to her days as a chief business officer—such as reinvigorating academic areas, renovating historic structures, and strengthening partnerships with local community organizations and other educational institutions.
"Within five years, we had reduced operating deficits to the break-even point, established an endowment foundation, and embarked on a successful comprehensive campaign," Libby reports. In that same time, Stephens experienced a 72 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment and a 150 percent enrollment increase in graduate and continuing studies programs.
In 2009, perceiving "a good fit," Libby moved to Stetson University to become its ninth president—and the first woman to hold that position. "The strategic planning experience and financial skills I had developed as a business officer matched much of what the university needed" in its president, she says.
Libby notes that she wasn't looking for a new opportunity when Stetson's search committee came calling-and she's not alone in making that observation. Joe Mullinix was senior vice president for business and finance at the University of California system when a recruiter contacted him about the position he now holds at the National University of Singapore.
"Never having seriously considered a job outside the United States, I needed some time to conclude that Asia was probably the most exciting place in higher education today, and Singapore was the perfect spot in Asia for me," says Mullinix, who now oversees the business and financial activities of Singapore's largest university. Not too bad for someone who says he initially joined the staff at Columbia University "thinking—probably not too clearly—that higher education would place fewer demands on my time" than investment banking.
Opportunity has unexpectedly knocked several times for Benjamin Quillian Jr., executive vice chancellor for business and finance and the chief financial officer for the California State University system. His career in education has included being an elementary school teacher, a college professor, an education association executive and, of course, a chief business officer.
One administrative position came as the result of a conversation Quillian had after giving a presentation to higher education administrators. The director of admissions at Washington University in St. Louis approached to ask if Quillian might want to work at the university.
"No," Quillian replied, "I'm not interested."
"Young man," the director said, "when somebody asks you that question, at least get the details."
Quillian did get the details—and soon became assistant director of admissions and financial aid at Washington University in St. Louis. A few years later, as an associate professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE), Quillian was encouraged by his graduate students to apply for a new administrative position. He listened to them—and was hired as the university's first affirmative action officer, Quillian's first position at the senior administrative level.
"Within a few years, I began reporting to a new president who became one of my mentors: Earl Lazerson," Quillian says. "From him, I learned how to get things done."
For example, based on a suggestion from Lazerson, Quillian applied for Harvard University's Institute for Educational Management. He recalls, "Once there, I realized very quickly that I knew absolutely nothing about the business side of the university, so I focused on learning those aspects during my time at Harvard." A few years later, again at Lazerson's suggestion, Quillian applied for a fellowship in academic administration with the American Council on Education. Through the fellowship, Quillian met another mentor: John Biggs at Washington University in St. Louis.
"Like me—but unlike most of the people I had encountered on the business side—John didn't have a business degree. He assured me that my level of financial understanding was more important than a degree," Quillian says. "John gave me the courage and confidence to manage financial people by knowing how to ask the right questions—and how to detect when they're doing a snow job."
After 15 years' employment, and having risen to vice president for administration, Quillian had no thought of leaving SIUE. But when Quillian heard about a position at California State University–Fresno, Earl Lazerson advised looking into it. "I'd hate to lose you," Lazerson said, "but I think it would be a great next step for you." Quillian accepted his mentor's suggestion—and spent the next 10 years in Fresno as the university's vice president for administration and chief financial officer.
Nim Chinniah also benefited from internal mentors. At Vanderbilt, where he spent the first 16 years of his career in higher education, Chinniah received advice and support from Gordon Gee, the chancellor, and Lauren Brisky, the CFO. "[They] were thoughtful and intentional about preparing me for the next job, both personally and professionally," says Chinniah. "They gave me opportunities to work on special projects and a lot of exposure to the board."
You've Got a Friend
Colleagues at other institutions can offer equally valuable advice on developing careers and solving problems, as Mary Lai discovered early in her 66-year tenure at Long Island University. For example, it was at an EACUBO meeting in 1960 that she first heard another business officer talk about the marvels of a new IBM tabulating machine that could mechanize student registration and billing.
Lai, an early proponent of forming a national association for business officers, went on to serve as the first woman president of both EACUBO and NACUBO. She observes, "In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the federal government was getting into everything within higher education. NACUBO's founding in 1962 helped us all, especially the smaller schools, to make national contacts and to talk to people outside our own region."
For Joe Mullinix, the willingness to freely share information with colleagues sets higher education apart from other fields. Through regional associations, NACUBO, and groups such as the Ivy League business officers, he says, "I had the ability to meet other business officers, share problems, and ask for help.
"As someone who came from outside higher ed, I found these groups invaluable in helping me adjust to a new environment, as well as providing ideas for solving problems," Mullinix continues. "Our institutions are often competitors, but we share information to enhance all institutions."
That collegial sharing, such an integral aspect of NACUBO's culture for the last 50 years, will undoubtedly prove valuable to chief business officers over the next 50 years—especially as their roles continue to evolve in ways not yet anticipated.
SANDRA R. SABO, Mendota Heights, Minnesota, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.