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Business Officer Magazine

Marie McDemmond on Life at the Top

By Karla Taylor

McDemmond resigned her presidency for health reasons on June 30. But before doing so, she spoke to Business Officer about weathering her first turbulent year in the corner office—and the lessons she's learned since about what both a CEO and a CFO need to succeed.

You lived through quite a tempest in your first year as president of Norfolk State.
When I came, we were facing a $6.5 million deficit on a $90 million budget. We didn't have enough money to get us through my first year, and we were also going through a re-accreditation. Having been a CFO, I had what was then called KPMG Peat Marwick come in to verify the deficit, then immediately set controls on spending and applied for a five-year, no-interest state loan.

We consolidated and streamlined until instead of nine schools, we had five; then established a plan to allow early retirement within state guidelines. I'm happy to say we repaid the loan in two and a half years. We did it through working groups from all parts of the university figuring out how to restructure and refocus Norfolk State.

Sounds like a difficult time.
There were a number of difficulties. A former president and members of the board held a press conference to say I had created the deficit in my first six months, in part by spending $200,000 on redecorating the president's house. I was on the cover of Black Issues in Higher Education because of all this.

Looking back, is there anything you wish you'd done differently?
I probably should not have used the word "mismanagement" in regard to the former administration. It seemed to offend them, although it was Peat Marwick that said it. As for the house—I had to do that to make it livable. It was in horrible shape...with termite damage and no furniture. The board chair approved it all, and everything was done on state bids with contracts.

Most of your career has been at majority institutions. How is a historically black public college different?
Though we've increased our endowment and giving is way up, it's still hard to raise funds. People have the feeling that the state is taking care of public institutions, and most African-Americans don't have the same wealth as most majority people. I've found that the critical thing is to work through our own home base: alumni. Without a good alumni giving rate, it looks like your own people don't believe in you.

Have you run into other misperceptions?
No university can afford to be all things to all people anymore, so we've pushed forward in niche areas, especially science and technology. People are skeptical about whether this little HBCU has the power to do what we say we'll do. But we're building a research center with our own clean room, we've added bachelor's and master's degrees in optical engineering and 90 percent of our campus is wireless now. We're showing it can be done.

As a president, have you ever had days when you thought, "Why did I ever give up being a business officer for this?"
No. Most of my higher education experience has been in majority institutions, and so I really wanted to come to Norfolk State. It's been worth all the hard times.

I knew I had to be the public face of the university—though that's not hard for me because I'm an extreme extrovert! We've done a lot in the way of marketing, which CFOs in may places think is a waste of money. But that's been part of my transformation to CEO—I had to sell the university, and that has its costs, so I've had to find the money to put a new face on Norfolk State.

What do you know that you wish you had known when you were a business officer?
I wish I had know that I could be more of a facilitator. The CFO is often looked upon as a negative person on campus—I remember being called "hatchet woman" as well as some other names I wouldn't want to repeat. But CFO is one of the most powerful positions in the university if you're a facilitator who know how to work with others to use budget, staff, and technology to get things done. You can help make the university a far better place.

Also, I wish I'd known that the sky is not always falling. Especially in my early days as a CFO, I worked myself very hard because if the least little thing went wrong, I didn't want anyone to say it was because I was a woman or an African-American who couldn't do it.

Author Bio Karla Taylor, Bethesda, Maryland, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.