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Business Officer Magazine

Count on Olsen

Leading the NACUBO board for 2006-07 is a chief business officer who volunteers, gets the job done, and puts his hand right back up in the air: Morgan Olsen.

By Jeffrey N. Shields

Olsen has held numerous volunteer and leadership positions, beginning with CACUBO as a member of the Host Committee in the late 80s and culminating as president in 2002-03. Within NACUBO, he has answered the call to volunteer and provided his leadership on a variety of committees, including the ACUBO 20/20 Task Force (formed in 1999 as a precursor to the ACUBO Innovation Council) and, most recently, the NACUBO Dues Task Force, which he chaired. He has participated in initiatives continuously at the regional and national level to prepare himself for perhaps the most challenging volunteer role of all–on August 1, Olsen became chair of the 2006-07 NACUBO Board of Directors.

Business Officer spoke with Olsen to understand how his experiences as an ubervolunteer prepared him for leading the board and serving members during a year of new challenges for higher education.

The pace of change for higher education continues to excel each year. With this in mind, what are the most pressing issues facing your peers at colleges and universities across the country?

A couple of things are pretty important. One of them that is eternal is our responsibility to position the institution to promote its mission and to achieve its goals. That’s the responsibility of everyone in senior leadership at an institution and certainly involves the chief business officer in a profound way. An emerging issue for business officers is helping to bridge the gap between the culture of the institution and its aspirations and the expectations of external stakeholders and the public. This gap continues to grow. We’re all about achieving our mission and increasing quality and providing additional educational opportunity. At the same time, the public is interested in issues like cost effectiveness and affordability and, to some extent, access. We have a role to play in making sure that there isn’t a significant disconnect between what society wants, which in large measure truly represents our customers, and what we’re trying to do. We all have expectations from our particular set of stakeholders, and higher education makes decisions differently than a lot of other types of organizations. We typically have a lot more people involved. There are some very good things about that, but at the same time it creates additional challenges in making sure that we’re really focused on the people we serve.

Who on campus needs to partner with the business officer to help bridge that gap?

Others on Olsen

Thanks to years and years of volunteerism, Morgan Olsen has a rather large network of colleagues in the higher education community, so it isn’t hard to gather some comments on his style to help us look at what’s ahead with an Olsen-led NACUBO…

“Morgan’s greatest leadership talents include his sense of responsibility to an institution and to higher education as a whole, his ability to formulate and carry out a vision, his consistency in making good decisions, his willingness to share credit for achieving success, and his overall compassion for people in general.”
John Patterson, vice president, administration and campus life, Pittsburg State University

“I have always found Morgan to be a professional with vision about the needs of higher education.”
Roger Lowe, vice president, administration and finance, Wichita State University

“Leadership is a process and a relationship  reflecting character, and I cannot think of a better way to describe Morgan than as a man of character. He truly is a positive role model. He will be very effective in moving NACUBO forward this year.”
Gaye Manning, vice chancellor, finance and administration, Southern Arkansas University Tech

The senior leadership team--the president, the chief academic officer, and the chief business officer--need to work together. For example, fundraising is important to all of us. There is more discussion today about whether an extension of funds is a gift or an investment in your institution. Significant donors also have some interest in providing input about the way they think things should happen.

Colleges and universities, public and private, are certainly in the fundraising space more than ever before. You worked at a number of different types of institutions; how is it different for each type?

It doesn’t matter whether you’re a community college or a large public research university–fundraising now is more important for everybody. It’s not restricted to higher education either. Virtually every hospital, social service organization, you name it, is trying to raise money, and as some revenue sources become tighter, that drive is accentuated.

You hear people talk about the intergenerational transfer of wealth--and certainly a lot of headlines these days suggest that there is a lot of money there--but more organizations are vying for it as well. Independent colleges and universities clearly have been good at fundraising for longer than most other types of institutions. But it’s becoming more common with just about every type of institution. Your typical public research university today probably relies on 10 to 30 percent of its budget coming from the state, which means that the larger majority of the budget is coming from someplace else. In the case of Purdue, about 19 percent is coming from state appropriation, so that means over 80 percent of our resources are coming from someplace else. A lot of that has been from private fundraising, and I think that’s simply going to continue.

Focusing on association matters for the coming year, NACUBO senior staff and the board are in the process of developing a new strategic plan. What should members know about this effort?

One of the most important things is that we’re reaching the conclusion of a five-year plan and a lot of good things have come out of that. Some initiatives continue to be the foundation that we build on, including advocacy, professional development, and research. Those things will continue to guide what we do. We also have discussed NACUBO’s desire to serve as the authoritative source on finance and management issues for higher education. I think that encompasses all of the things we’re talking about--developing knowledge that is appropriate for the profession. This may involve advocating a position on a regulatory issue. The role that NACUBO plays in that arena is going to be as important as it ever has been. We must continue to make the case that higher education is a worthy investment. We must also ensure that we engage the very best, most well-informed group of volunteers to work with staff and lead our ongoing professional development efforts. Generally we’ll be trying to build on what we’ve done before and become even better.

Networking and feeling connected to a community of business officers is also a key aspect of NACUBO and the regional associations. As someone who has been an active volunteer within the community for many years, how has your collegial network evolved?

One of the reasons I’ve chosen to be active as a volunteer in my professional associations is that I think I get as much or even more back from that commitment, no matter what I put into it. The opportunity to develop relationships and to learn from people and to have folks whom you can contact when you have a particular challenge is absolutely invaluable. It’s part of our higher education culture that is unique compared to a lot of industries--the degree to which we do share even though we compete in many ways. That’s something that I’ve always enjoyed. Another thing that’s sort of unique about American higher education is its diversity--the way that the different institutions approach what they do, what they charge, the size--you pick a parameter and you’re going to come up with a wide range of characteristics in almost every one of them. I think that’s part of our strength.

It’s our biggest strength but also one of our biggest challenges–wouldn’t you agree?

Always will be. What that means is that we also have to figure out how not to try to be all things to all people at all times, but as a professional association to be there for our stakeholders as much as possible. That’s why I think that the community strategy is smart--putting together people who have similar experiences and similar challenges and allowing them to interact. Intellectual capital comes in a lot of formats, so we can all learn from one another and there’s wisdom in making sure that our members are with folks whose challenges are similar--whose requirements are similar--but there’s also value in bringing people together to share ideas from diverse types of settings. This is certainly what we’re trying to do academically on our campuses through collaboration and interdisciplinary work. The same thing is probably true of higher education administration.

The ACUBO Innovation effort conducted a major research project last year that helped the national and the four regional associations develop a competency framework to help all of the partners take a more comprehensive view of its professional development offerings. What are the next steps, and what are the implications for NACUBO and the regional associations at this point?

Well, as you know, I’m somebody who’s long been very excited about this effort, and I have to give credit to the people who initiated it--it was definitely a stroke of genius. With respect to the curriculum project and the competency framework, I see it as being the opportunity for what I call a twofer. On one hand, we now have the ability to develop our bodies of knowledge for different types of professionals within higher education administration. So whether we aspire to serve controllers or aspire to serve academic business officers, we are able to define those core competencies and skills that those individuals ought to have to be successful--defined by people who are successful within the field. It’s very focused on the individual practitioner in one respect.

But at the same time, it also provides a benefit to the institution in terms of being able to define a career track for people and to create a pool of developing talent. So, to me it speaks directly to our professional development mission. The sky is really almost the limit. It takes time to get there of course, but there are a lot of things that we could choose to do with that information in terms of validating a person’s skill set and identifying that person as someone who is accomplished and should be tracked for greater responsibilities when opportunities become available.

Getting to Know Olsen
Degrees: Ph.D. in higher education, University of Kansas; master’s in public administration and bachelor’s in political science, summa cum laude, University of North Dakota
Pre-Purdue Days: vice president for business and finance, Southern Methodist University; vice president for business affairs and treasurer, Eastern Illinois University; vice president for fiscal affairs, Emporia State University
Surrounded by Women: wife, Beth; Kiri, age 14; Mia, age 4
Side Interests: ice hockey and tennis
Last Book Read:  The World is Flat, by Tom Friedman
Motto: “Try to be a good person.”
Biggest Professional Mistake: “Can’t think of one in particular, but I hope that I’ve made it already.”

Will this influence the way the five associations operate? Previous discussions of the ACUBO leadership have suggested that NACUBO’s role would be to develop the curriculum for regional associations to then deliver. Other models include intentionally replicating the best programs for delivery in each region of the country.  Do you see us moving in that direction?

I do think that’s part of it. One of the realities is that we as business officers have this unusual organizational structure. I don’t think any of us on our own campuses would organize something in the fashion we have with our professional association where we have four regional associations--each with its own board, governance structures, treasury, etc.--and then the national association which ironically is younger than any of the regions. If you had a blank sheet of paper today, you would never design it that way. But the fact of the matter is that it is this way, and it’s going to be this way for the foreseeable future.

So how do we get better? How do we find synergy, and how do we avoid less than optimal use of resources? That’s why I get excited when I think of the ACUBO effort. We also know that with the regional associations, which are entirely volunteer-driven, it’s difficult to have some of the institutional memory and consistency of commitment you’d like to have. It’s just going to take us a little bit of time. I’m as optimistic as I ever have been. I think the future is bright. The challenge is that people are in a mode where they’re saying “We’ve invested a significant amount of resources in this, and we expect to see something delivered.”  It’s important at this stage to keep up our momentum.

There has been a trend of people coming into chief business officer roles from nontraditional backgrounds. They may be from the private sector or government. They haven’t worked their way up through a higher education institution or been exposed to the regional associations or NACUBO. What are your thoughts on that?

I think it’s probably an increasing trend, although I don’t have any current data on that, it’s just my sense. I think it’s probably both good and bad. I don’t think we have any patent on leadership ability or technical ability, so to have people who have other experiences is good and healthy for the profession. At the same time, I wonder what people are trying to tell us. Does it mean that we’re not doing as a good a job on campus as we should be in terms of nurturing and developing talent internally? And if that’s part of the answer, I think we very much ought to be concerned about it. The competency framework takes on even greater importance if this trend continues, because it will help identify the knowledge and skills needed by both internal and external professionals who are seeking senior-level roles within higher education business management.

Another unique aspect of your leadership year will be hosting the 2007 NACUBO Annual Meeting in New Orleans.  How do you feel about NACUBO bringing business officers together in a city that’s been through so much in the past year?

Clearly it’s a good thing for NACUBO to be doing. Our first responsibility is to our membership, and we need to be comfortable that we can put on the kind of meeting our members want and expect. I’m confident that will happen. In addition, I like the idea of helping to get New Orleans back on its feet. If we can play a role in contributing to its economy, I think it’s a very positive thing. I also think there are some additional things members who attend the meeting could do to assist the community. We’ll be planning a service effort between now and then to contribute to New Orleans in both a financial and an active way.

How would you articulate your plan for leading NACUBO?

Strategy Snapshot

One of the most important efforts that Morgan Olsen will lead during the next year will be the development of a new strategic plan to serve as a roadmap for NACUBO. The goals and objectives of the plan will support three major themes:

  1. Equip business officers with the knowledge and resources needed to succeed.
  2. Present the case for higher education as an integral part of our social fabric.
  3. Prepare business officers for the changing financial, educational, and social environment.

The entire strategic plan will be presented to the NACUBO Primary Representatives during the 2007 NACUBO Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

I’m working with a group of peers who on their own campuses are generally used to having quite a lot of say about how things happen. So leading with a heavy hand is not the way to go. What I’ve got to do is listen to people and understand what’s important to them, then draw people together on common goals and get them excited about certain possibilities. To bring people together, I plan to focus on a couple of things we really want to accomplish. I’m confident that, in that way, we will succeed.

What’s the greatest leadership lesson you have learned during your career?

One of the things I’ve learned is that people are unique and they process things in different ways. If you look at the world only through your lens, that’s going to be a problem. The more that you can understand where other people are coming from and what they’re thinking, the better off you’ll be as a leader and a colleague. Understanding how other people process communication and ideas is a valuable leadership skill.

And about what are you most passionate?

There are a lot of things somebody can choose to do with his life, but I’ve always felt that there’s something very valuable in what we do in higher education. Higher education plays a critical role in society in terms of what we can do to strengthen the arts, literature, and culture--and obviously the economy. We also play such an important role for individuals as well.

I always like commencement. It’s a reminder for all of us--whether you’re a student affairs professional, or you clean rooms in the residence halls, or you teach political science–that we can make such a difference in people’s lives. People come into the world with a lot of potential, and I believe higher education allows them to realize their potential.

Circling back to volunteerism, do you have a call to action for members?

Thinking back on earlier days in my career and in my volunteer work, I can see that it takes a while to find where you fit, and that isn’t always really clear. NACUBO is a little bit more of a staff-driven organization than the regional associations, but basically the association belongs to all of us. It’s our association, serving our profession. My question to members is: What do you want it to be, and what can you do to help it get there? Some people contribute through being a speaker. Some people do it through attending meetings. Other people want to get involved in leadership on a board or a committee. There are a lot of ways to help shape NACUBO, and it’s great if a person figures out how he or she would like to contribute and then goes for it.

JEFFREY N. SHIELDS is vice president, community and member services, at NACUBO.