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Business Officer Magazine

When Counterparts See Eye to Eye

As business officers and student affairs directors increasingly face issues of mutual concern, it might just pay to join forces and keep similar goals in sight.

By Marta Perez Drake

As campus safety and security continue to make headlines, the connection between the chief business officer and the chief student affairs officer becomes readily apparent: The collaboration between the two professionals can be crucial to calmly restoring order during an unexpected crisis. In addition, everyday cooperation can expedite capital projects, increase student satisfaction, and improve town-gown relations.

In an interview for Business Officer, Marta Perez Drake, director, constituent programs at NACUBO, explores with Relyea and Rue how their collegial partnership benefits their institution.

Last fall, when your institution closed its campus because of threatening wildfires, how did you two work together to handle your students, administration, and campus operations?

Relyea: I was off campus, stuck at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for more than four hours, trying to get a flight back. So, I had to rely on Penny. Fortunately, she’s a “roll-up-your-sleeves” person who doesn’t work only on the policy end of things.

I think she camped out at our emergency operations center for at least 12 to 14 hours per day while the wildfires threatened. Because Penny jumped in and worked closely with the police, the emergency responders, and all of my staff, we didn’t miss a beat. You’ve heard the saying “trial by fire.” Well, it was literally happening that time.

What else contributed to a successful outcome? 

Relyea: The critical piece was that Penny’s staff and my staff worked extremely well together. And we got lucky. A week before the closure, all our employees who work in the emergency operations center participated in an intense drill. Only a few days later, they were all back seeing the same faces, sitting at the same desks in the same emergency operations center, and working on a real emergency.

Rue: I would echo that a lot of student affairs work is about relationship building. Early in my career, I learned that you need to know the police, emergency responders, and risk management people. That way, you not only see how policies and procedures come into play, but you understand the backbone—the people who make it all work.

Steve and I share projects focused on emergency communication solutions. As he mentioned, we conduct joint training exercises; one coming soon involves a threat-assessment team. We each try to share relevant knowledge, which comes up through our various professional associations, listservers, and other resources.

Penny, which of Steve’s characteristics do you find helpful in your role as vice chancellor of student affairs?

Rue: His institutional knowledge. He’s one of the longest-serving vice chancellors right now at our very young institution. So, he’s got about half of the institution’s history in his head, which is very helpful.

Our partnership is based on collegiality, collaboration, open-mindedness, resourcefulness, and the willingness to embrace creative solutions. This institution adopts a “let’s-give-it-a-try” kind of ethos, which I appreciate and find exciting. Steve is very much that way. When student leaders contact Steve about a project idea, he immediately says, “Penny should be a part of this.” It is really helpful that, when something crosses his desk, he finds it important to include me.

I also particularly appreciate Steve’s financial and technological skill sets, which differ a little from my areas of expertise.

Steve, which of Penny’s skills and abilities do you find helpful?

Relyea: Penny is an incredibly quick study, which can be attributed to her background and her innate ability to assimilate information quite fast. Even though I have been here for a while, I don’t have a good understanding of certain parts of the student side, such as how the student judicial system works or how the various areas of student affairs interact with one another and with the college and students.

Whenever I encounter an issue that might affect student affairs or Penny’s service with students, I let her know. She has such a better, more comprehensive knowledge of all the processes that impact the students and their lives here.

Frankly, I find it helpful that my office is literally about 20 feet from Penny’s. When I see her, it is usually not in a scheduled meeting. Most of the time, we run into each other and wander into one or the other of our offices to chat. That kind of informality really helps.

Rue: Plus, our assistants understand how to squeeze 5, 10, or 15 minutes into our pretty hectic days.

What factors could inhibit a good working relationship between people in your positions?

Rue: Sometimes CBOs expect student affairs to be able to control students. That can be frustrating. In our work, we need to have a fair amount of tolerance for students to learn through the process of how to work within a complex organization to achieve their goals.

Another issue that can cause tension is technology. It’s very easy for technology solutions to be planned in silos that do not cross divisional lines. This can be costly and ineffective. Steve is a leader in the University of California system in creating partnerships to put the best technology tools in the hands of students in the most effective way. 

People who do not spend a lot of time with students occasionally forget that students are the reason we are all here. I appreciate that Steve remembers that and keeps customer service at the front of his mind.

Relyea: It is fun to sit down with students and talk to them about their dreams and aspirations. At the same time, we have to bring them to the reality of what it means to make things happen. But that’s part of the university experience and that’s part of the fun.

Let’s talk more about student activism and how student demands can affect the bottom line. How do you see your roles for working with students to meet those demands?

Relyea: A vice chancellor of student affairs cannot reflect and be an advocate for students without considering the financial impact of policy implications—just as a chief business officer cannot simply look at the bottom line and enforce policy, regardless of how students feel. 

Here, our student affairs vice chancellor not only recognizes her role in supporting and advocating on behalf of students, but also acts as a chief business officer in a lot of respects. Penny is very concerned about the bottom line, as well as university policy and legal issues. 

Similarly, I have to consider the student body as one of my absolute key customers and stakeholders. So, in a way, the student affairs officer has to be a business officer, and a business officer has to be a student affairs officer. If you do that, then student demands or initiatives—related to sustainability, fair trade issues, labor issues, and even demonstrations—work out, because these two understand each other’s perspective.

Rue: I agree. Our agendas are so overlapping that we really need to have each other’s views in mind.

What about town-gown relations? How do you coordinate these concerns?

Rue: The issues at UC San Diego are mostly about transportation, parking, traffic, and housing. Steve and I are particularly collaborative when it comes to these areas. For example, we are aggressively building new on-campus housing, which has helped our sustainability efforts, our sense of culture and belonging, and our affordability issues for students. It is an exciting area of collaboration.

Relyea: On our campus, I handle the housing area. However, I see Penny as my No. 1 customer, because her goals for student life on this campus drive my program. I consider myself the landlord who takes care of logistics. My folks understand that meeting Penny’s vision for student-friendly housing, which provides a sense of community and care for the well-being of our students, is our goal. More on-campus housing eases the impact and burden on the local community as well.

In the transportation area, we have collaborated with regional officials to provide all UC San Diego students with free transit passes to campus, which [eases congestion] and helps our relationship with the surrounding community.

On a related subject, Penny recently completed a national tour of research universities to look at the connection between student life and alumni relations and to examine the institutions’ best practices in these areas. This institutional knowledge has been incredibly useful. Penny has been a great partner in understanding the expectations of students coming into the institution. When their wishes are met, it can lead to early involvement as enthusiastic UC San Diego alumni. The external relations staff, whom I supervise on an interim basis, appreciate having the kind of support that ultimately makes the job of involving alumni in the university easier.

What are the components of an effective working relationship between the chief business officer and the chief student affairs officer?

Rue: One of the first ones is to get to know each other’s staff. If you are only relating to each other as heads of large and diverse operations, you do not know the strengths and assets throughout the organization.

Another is staying up-to-date on student trends and data. I really appreciate Steve’s focus on customer satisfaction surveys and his knowledge of student demographics and financial stresses.

I also believe in making space for the voices of students. In addition to surveying them regularly, we need to let students know that they have access to a responsive administration.

Relyea: We can’t see our roles as one-dimensional. We need to share responsibilities rather than one of us taking the student standpoint on an issue and the other taking the business perspective.

Rue: Yes, our successes are truly connected.

What other factors contribute to an effective relationship?

Relyea: Informality. If the only time you ever interact is in a formal setting, such as a committee meeting or task force, you can’t be as effective when a problem or emergency occurs that requires you to rely on the other person. If you can consistently interact in nonscheduled ways, it makes things easier when unscripted events take place.

Rue: We rely on one another because we each have two masters: a chancellor who has certain expectations of our roles, and students who have other expectations of the university. So, we make sure that we are collaborating in ways that meet the needs and anticipations of these two important entities.

MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is director, constituent programs, at NACUBO.

A Smaller-Scale View

Especially at small institutions, some of which may not employ student affairs directors, everyone needs to be aware of student satisfaction. “If you don’t have a dedicated person focusing on student life issues,” advises Rick Staisloff, vice president of finance and administration, College of Notre Dame of Maryland, Baltimore, “you need to make sure that the other senior managers on campus all have a strong awareness of those issues and that there’s good ownership of [those issues].” Clearly, he notes, “in a small campus, you’ve got to wear a lot of hats. You need to make sure people are well-versed in student life issues so as an institution, you can keep moving forward. Although we do have a vice president of student affairs, I certainly feel it’s my responsibility to understand what the trends are for student amenities.”

When it comes to matching campus realities with student expectations, however, small institutions may have more limited resources. “Business officers will sometimes say, ‘We can’t do that,’ ‘We can’t do this,’ and ‘We can’t do that,’” explains Staisloff. “But there typically are investments you can make to benefit students, whether in athletic facilities, residence halls, or dining facilities.”

So, don’t look at enhancing student amenities as an all-or-nothing equation, Staisloff advises. For example, “if right now isn’t the time to build the $14 million recreation center,” he says, “what is the next investment that you can make to enhance the quality of student life? That’s the trick—finding out how to make medium-sized investments that go a long way toward meeting student expectations. You can’t get caught in an all-or-nothing situation or you will get trapped in what I call the facility arms race.”

Because he keeps up with trends, Staisloff feels comfortable making several predictions about the evolution of student amenities. S. Catherine Longley, senior vice president for finance and administration and treasurer, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, also weighs in on these areas, which will certainly require collaboration with student affairs directors.

  • Upgraded living arrangements. “Increasingly, the residence facilities at colleges are mirroring the residence experience college students have in their own homes,” says Staisloff. “These kids are used to having their own bedrooms, their own bathrooms, and perhaps access to their own television and entertainment systems. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine that college life could get more luxurious. However, my prediction is that colleges will continue to try to offer amenities demanded in the market that students have grown up with.”

Longley agrees. “We offer a full range of housing,” she explains. “The trend in higher ed is for upperclass housing to have more cooking facilities. We have limited housing with kitchens, a layout which we might increase in the future.” She adds that her office works hand in hand with the dean of students, “who keeps a finger on the pulse of our main constituents—students.

  • Not-so-quiet libraries. Staisloff believes institutions will continue to meld social and instructional spaces to satisfy student preferences. “If you look at the trends, the libraries that are being renovated or built on campuses are following the Barnes & Noble phenomenon,” he says. “Libraries are no longer the hushed, quiet, single-cubicle research places that they were in the past. They now support collaborative learning environments with [common areas] that include everything from online Internet access to coffee bars. That will continue.”
  • Bigger-than-ever bandwidths. “Unfortunately, the reality is that however big the pipeline is today, it won’t be big enough tomorrow,” says Staisloff. “You will always be chasing an ever-bigger demand. The solution is not just increasing bandwidth; you have to manage it.” To ensure you have enough capacity for backroom services, he suggests segregating student access—particularly for high-bandwidth needs like video—from the instructional and administrative functions. He also advocates working with your student affairs director to develop an acceptable-use policy so students know what rules to play by.
  • Emphasis on wellness. Staisloff is seeing a big focus on wellness issues that range from health services to athletic activities to body-mind-soul enhancement. Longley, who has noted this as well, explains that Bowdoin broke ground in June on a fitness and wellness center that will benefit students, faculty, and staff. The facility will include rooms for yoga, meditation, acupuncture, and massage. She anticipates the center will open in September 2009. “There is a lot of action on campuses now in offering more amenities in the area of fitness, such as workout rooms or weight training,” she says, “because students have expressed an interest in health and wellness.”

Another way Bowdoin keeps students happy is by providing a restaurant-quality dining experience. The menu, which ranges from spicy orange beef to vegetable ragout, features freshly prepared food from local sources. “We cook everything,” Longley says. “Our dining employees get very involved with recipe design with students. We are incredibly customer focused. We allow students to pick theme nights, we post nutritional information, and we accommodate special diets, including vegan.”

Bowdoin, selected for the 2007 Ivy Award from Restaurants and Institutions magazine, purchases local vegetables from organic farmers, as well as fish caught in nearby waters. “We have a lobster bake for first-year students and serve lobster to all graduating seniors and their families at commencement,” Longley says.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Virginia, covers higher education business topics for Business Officer.

Community College Perspectives on Collaboration

A multicampus business model adds another dimension to staying in touch with student affairs. Here are two examples of how community college business officers bridge the gap.

Staying Close Despite the Distance

When your community college covers an eight-county radius in central Pennsylvania, it’s not always easy to keep abreast of student affairs activities on each of the five campuses. Yet George A. Franklin Jr., vice president of finance and college resources, Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC), manages to keep connected.

“I have monthly meetings with Student Affairs and Enrollment Management Vice President Winifred Black,” he says. “We discuss issues she may have with my area, and I share concerns that need to be addressed from my perspective.”

The two work particularly closely in four areas:

1. Enrollment. When creating the annual budget, Franklin relies on the enrollment data provided by Black, who is a member of the college’s data-driven enrollment management team. This information is used not only to prepare the annual budgets but also to project student tuition and local sponsor–reimbursement revenues as the fiscal year progresses.

2. Security. HACC recently revised its security protocols, providing Black with online access to all security incidents that deal specifically with students. In the past, the director of safety and security had to hand-cull student-related incidents out of the computer system and e-mail them to Black. In addition to saving time, the new method takes the guesswork out of determining which incidents in the security officers’ reports apply to students.

3. Budgeting. “There’s only so much money to go around,” Franklin says. “We all have to prepare realistic budgets, making sure that we are using our resources most effectively.” HACC uses a modified zero-based budget process. When a division, including student affairs, requests additional funding, Franklin doesn’t simply say, “No, that’s too expensive.”  His response might be: “Given that this addresses a strategic initiative of the college, let’s see if we can find a way to get it funded.”

4. Strategic plan.  Both Franklin and Black serve as representatives on the collegewide strategic planning committee, which is currently working on a variety of initiatives. Among them are combining registration and cashiering units to simplify student enrollment, and evaluating some of the activities conducted in Harrisburg to determine which could be rolled out to the regional campuses to better serve students. “We’ve gotten so large,” explains Franklin, “that we’re now looking at different options.”

How to Build a Lasting Relationship

At Pima Community College, Tucson, Arizona, David Bea, executive vice chancellor for administration, faces challenges similar to Franklin’s: How do you coordinate with the student development administrators on six campuses and at the district office on solving student issues and supporting related activities, including auxiliary services, capital projects, and athletics?

Based on their experiences, Bea and Franklin offer several suggestions for working effectively with student affairs leaders.

Break the mold. The stereotype of a typical business officer tends to be pretty rigid, points out Franklin. “Sometimes we are perceived as leaders who follow the straight and narrow and cannot see anything but black and white,” he says. To dispel that misconception, he advises business officers to show flexibility and understanding when dealing with student affairs and other issues.

Walk and talk. “CFOs need to be approachable,” Franklin says. “They need to take the time to visit the different locations and campuses and meet with campus administrators, including student affairs officers, to discuss and resolve their issues, when possible.” Be proactive, advises Franklin. “Don’t wait until issues flair up and become agenda items at the president’s cabinet meeting. If you have differences, resolve them between the two of you.”

Understand your mission. “You can’t be effective in business operations without understanding that students and education are the central core of the institution,” Bea says. “The business support functions are just that. They support the institution and its mission.”

Know what your customers need.  Bea, who supervises diverse functions that directly affect students—including student accounts, budgeting, facilities, public safety, food service, and the bookstore—believes in a customer focus. “You will not be successful if you don’t understand the needs of your customer,” he says. “We contract out the food service and bookstore operations, but we work closely with the contractors to ensure they provide good service to the students and they create environments that are accessible and appealing.”

Get progress reports. Bea suggests asking for regular feedback from multiple sources, including student-satisfaction comment cards and involved committees. “We are undergoing a fairly significant process-review effort,” he says. “Essentially, we’ve been evaluating all facets of student-service delivery, identifying where we can make improvements, and determining where we can use technology to better serve student needs. That involves focus groups, as well as working with the individuals on the front lines, such as cashiers, advisers, and counselors.”

—Margo Vanover Porter