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Business Officer Magazine

Planner in Chief

NACUBO's 2004-05 board chair, Dick Spies, sets his sights on bringing the best thinking to the table for a year of progress.

By Jeffrey N. Shields

Your first full-time position in higher education was assistant to the provost at Princeton University. How did that shape your professional experiences and lead you to the position that you're in today?

I had a terrific experience very early on working with a variety of individuals at Princeton. I began by doing budget work and served as the in-house analyst for the budget process. The entire process was organized around a faculty-student-administration committee chaired by the provost. I served as its chief staff person for many years and learned an enormous amount about how a university works, both by seeing how the money is actually spent and by trying to manage such a participatory process. After that I began taking on responsibilities above and beyond the budget work, as additional "business officer" functions were needed. In 1988, a new president arrived at Princeton and I was asked to take on the financial vice president role, which was a leap of faith on his part because I was basically an academic and had never had that kind of operational responsibility before. Somehow, though, I ended up serving in that position for almost 15 years.

As a senior-level administrator, you have also maintained a teaching role in the classroom. Has that been an important component of your work?

I have taught most years and I've done other faculty-like duties for the economics department, but it's always been a labor of love. When there is an opportunity to do it and I can be helpful to the academic side of the house, I am happy to teach. Actually, I love it when they ask. But I've never been a full-time faculty member.

How have your experiences helped you work more collaboratively with academic colleagues on campus?

I've had two advantages. The first was the nature of the institutions where I worked. Both Princeton and Brown are small enough and centralized enough that basically the whole budget comes together in one place—in both cases through a faculty-student committee under the leadership of the provost's office. That's been my experience from the very beginning. All the budgets—the revenue items as well as the expense items—are on the table at the same time. The larger goals of the institution become the goals of that process. It prevents the budgeting process from becoming compartmentalized as it can in some institutions under certain circumstances.

The second advantage is that for the first 16 years at Princeton during which I was in the provost's office, I was smack-dab in the middle of that process. At the time, I considered myself primarily an academic officer because I had academic responsibilities. I worked a lot with faculty and department chairs in particular, and it was my responsibility to ensure that academic planning was brought into the budget process and integrated with the non-academic work of the institution. I also worked directly with administrative officers who were bringing their budgets forward, so I saw how the administrative and support pieces played essential roles in the academic success of the university. I helped a committee of faculty and students make the entire budget work. My job was to be that "go between," if you will.

You are a strong advocate for this systemwide approach to university budgeting. Did you have to build this process from scratch or did you model your process after other institutions?

Princeton was one of the first to bring students and faculty more systematically into university governance in the late 1960s. However, many institutions were experimenting with this concept at the time. Princeton had some advantages in terms of its size and the fact that it doesn't have large professional schools that may tend to operate more independently. Princeton's faculty-student committee has existed for more than 30 years and has served at the center of the budgeting process that whole time. I don't believe too many places have had that long a history with this systemwide process.

What do you consider to be the key issues that are challenging business officers today?

Brown at a Glance

Location: Providence, Rhode Island
Established: 1764
Full-time Enrollment: 7,500 (includes undergraduate, graduate, and medical) from all 50 states and 70 countries
Current Funds Expenditures: $500 million
Faculty Size: 600 (9:1 faculty student ratio; all Brown faculty teach undergraduate courses)

The first one that comes to mind, and it's not just business officers but the entire leadership of the university, is keeping institutional focus. And by that I mean understanding very well the institutional mission and the institutional goals, and organizing all our efforts around those missions and those goals. It's easy for staff at institutions as complex as colleges and universities to go off in a thousand different directions because we have so many bright energetic people on campus with exciting ideas. And each individual believes his or her particular idea is the most important. It's easy to get seduced by that. One of the responsibilities of leadership is to be clear about the major institutional goals and the priorities that come with those goals, and to keep the attention focused on those areas. That doesn't mean that you don't do anything else, but it means you know where to focus your primary attention. Second, and related to that, is making the institution's plans more integrated and more comprehensive so that they aren't merely a collection of individual unit plans but, in fact, an overall institution plan.

Both issues you've raised relate directly to your specific role at Brown and the value of institutions embracing an overall strategic plan for their campus. In your opinion, have colleges and universities fully embraced these concepts?

I know I appreciate the need for that kind of strategic approach much more now than I did three years ago. What President Ruth Simmons has done in her three years at Brown is absolutely remarkable. She realized that we needed to focus on those areas that were most important to us—those areas in which we could excel—as well as on what it took to accomplish those things. Part of that mind-set was hiring somebody in a position like mine. If there isn't somebody who gets up every morning worrying about whether we're making progress on the strategic plan and its priorities, it's going to be tough to make progress. Sometimes just having a president or a provost who is driven to focus on the plan can make the difference, but for most institutions, a true strategic focus requires more structural support than just one strong-willed leader or an informal group of people. It's something I would recommend that institutions at least consider as they contemplate major strategic initiatives. I would not have said that before coming to Brown and working with Ruth.

In terms of challenges, of course the financial ones that we're all struggling with are every bit as significant now as they were at any point in the past. We're trying to do things that are very expensive in terms of the kind of teaching that most of us do, the kind of research and scholarship that many of us try to do, the kinds of service that we try to provide for our students and the larger society. And the resources to do it now come from a more diverse set of funding sources. Trying to keep it all together is a bigger challenge every year.

As a member of the NACUBO Ad Hoc Committee on College Costs, what concerns still exist since the committee issued its report in February 2002, and what role can NACUBO play to help combat critics of the cost of college today?

Personal Profile
Dick Spies earned a Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University and a B.A. in mathematics from Amherst College. He is married to Sandy, an executive with Bank of America in Boston, and has one son, Geoffrey, a former Harvard staff member and current MBA student at Boston College. Spies runs every day and enjoys sailing, trips to the beach, and cheering for Brown athletics.

We have yet to find a truly effective way to explain to a variety of audiences the financial and economic structure of what we do. I don't mean that everybody has to become an expert on university budgeting because that's obviously not going to happen. But we need to communicate more effectively the basics of university financing and the balancing act between value and cost to help more people understand. This doesn't happen very often. The College Cost project was an effort to give us some tools that would enable us to do at least some of those things—to discuss college costs in an intelligent, understandable, and transparent way. We did a pretty good job, but the tools still need to be used more effectively. The most recent flurry of discussions about cost and price related to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act demonstrates what we've said all along, which is that this issue is not going to go away.

During this past year you served as chair of the NACUBO Board Planning Committee. How will NACUBO's long-range strategic plan help the association move forward toward its vision? And how will it help us serve our members in the coming year?

I have learned a lot by being part of the planning process at NACUBO that has helped me at Brown. The strategic planning process enables us to identify, in a way that's clear to everyone, what our primary goals are, how we view our core purpose, and the things we intend to do to achieve our vision. What is most valuable about this process is the progression of our long-term strategic plan to short-term action plans to budget and resource allocation. It's still a work in progress, but I was pleased with how it all progressed over the last year and I tried to bring back a lot of those lessons to Brown. To me, that's been the most rewarding aspect of being part of the NACUBO leadership the past few years.

Conqueror of Complex Issues

When asked by Business Officer what qualities they most admire in Dick Spies, his peers hailed his ability to handle complex problems and tough assignments.

"Dick is a really good thinker in a business where 'smart' counts…and therefore someone we can all depend on to tackle complex problems. He is deeply committed to higher education and to his profession, and is very collegial in gaining everyone's view before making recommendations on both operational and policy issues."
—Craig Bazzani, vice president for foundation advancement, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and NACUBO board chair, 2001-2002

"When I first met Dick, I immediately observed that he had the ability to take a relatively complex subject, break it down into understandable pieces, and attack the issue with a solution that could be supported by a wide constituency."
—Richard Norman, vice president, finance and business services/treasurer, Miami University of Ohio

"Dick led the 'Cost of College' project, which was a very tough assignment. It was attributable to Dick's skills as a leader to come up with an enormously useful product that was simple enough to meet our needs without being too complex that it wouldn't be implemented."
—Dave Liebermen, senior vice president, business & finance, University of Miami

You've also been a major player in the ACUBO Innovation effort this past year. What progress would you like to see made in the coming year with regard to the collaboration between NACUBO and each of the regional associations?

I'd like to see us continue to build the partnership, develop the partnership, and use the partnership. We have been doing that in recent years more and more, and the successful completion of the ACUBO market research project this last year is a good example of that. The combination of the volunteer leadership within each of the regional associations and the resources and broad focus of the national organization is pretty powerful when you pull it together. I'd like to see us continue to make progress in this area.

How will you lead the NACUBO Board in the coming year?

I've been extremely impressed with the way in which Pat Farris and the previous chairs have presided over a very participatory process. It's not a small group, there are strong people with different perspectives, and so, at times, it can become challenging to manage. But I think that is for all the right reasons. There's a lot of energy on the board and I'd like to be a facilitator of that purpose-driven energy—a role mastered by previous chairs—to get the best thinking at the table and help us focus on the primary goals of the organization. NACUBO's board is an excellent example for all of us—to find ways to get people involved, get the ideas flowing, get people talking about them, and assume that the best ideas will win out and we'll go forward based on those best ideas.

Current NACUBO President and CEO Jay Morley has announced his plans to retire in 2006. So, in addition to your NACUBO Board responsibilities, you will also be chairing a search committee for his successor during the next year. What insights have you gained from your campus experience that may assist you with this process?

There is nothing more important for a board to do than to appoint its chief executive officer, whether it's a higher education or association environment. People who've been involved in a presidential transition at either the board level or the staff level appreciate that. The process here will be different because the needs for an association are different from those of an institution, but there are also a lot of similarities. I don't think that will dominate our year because there's too much energy in the organization to be sidetracked by it. At the same time, it obviously is important to the future of the organization that we manage this process well in terms of its transparency as well as its outcome.

What is the single most important accomplishment that you would like to see achieved in the coming year?

I said this during my salute to Pat Farris (immediate past board chair) at the closing session of the annual meeting in Milwaukee: The goal we all should have as institutional officers—and by extension as association leaders—is to leave the organization stronger and better positioned to take on the challenges and identify the opportunities of the future. I don't believe there's any single thing that I'm likely to do in the next year that will be marked as my accomplishment or the board's accomplishment, but it's really continuing the effort to make us better and better. Pat and last year's board set a pretty high standard for us, but that just makes it more interesting and more fun to take on the same challenge for the coming year.

Author Bio Jeffrey N. Shields is vice president of community and member services at NACUBO.