Knowing that economic uncertainty has thrust business officers into uncustomary limelight, Kevan Buck, NACUBO board chair for 2009–10, has clear intentions: Provide members with the tools for heightened communication and transparency.
By Jeffrey N. Shields
Kevan Buck freely admits that when he agreed to interview with a senior business officer at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, for the position of assistant comptroller, he went to the campus library the next morning to look up the term and see what it meant. “I read the definition and thought, 'oh, no, accounting,'” says Buck, now executive vice president at the University of Tulsa (TU), Oklahoma. “I managed to get the job and immediately picked up books on accounting and finance principles.”
Buck had spent several years in forestry and retail management, and a transition to the business office seemed a stretch at the time. But, he had the confidence that he could figure it out. “It validates the advice: 'Don't ever believe you can't do it,'” Buck asserts.
His can-do attitude took Buck from that first position 25 years ago to Wilmington College, Wilmington, Ohio, in 1993, where he served as vice president of business and finance, and then to the University of Tulsa (TU) in 2000. “It's all been a combination of confidence and timing,” says Buck.
A committed volunteer, Buck is immediate past president of the CACUBO board and co-chair of the ACUBO Steering Committee, among other positions. Consequently, he brings to the NACUBO Board of Directors, as board chair beginning August 1, recognition of the importance of member involvement. As he considers a year of economic uncertainty for his institution and for NACUBO and its members, Buck has a dual goal: “We'll continue the momentum we've established for providing the right support for our members,” he says, “and begin work on a process for developing a new strategic plan that can hold up to the huge changes that continue to affect higher education.”
In an interview with Business Officer, Buck acknowledges the additional responsibilities and the high visibility that the economic crisis has brought to chief business officers and how he plans to guide the board in initiatives that support this expanding role.
Clearly, the economic climate is on everyone's mind right now. A lot of higher education institutions made significant changes in response to last fall's crisis, and people remain uncertain about what the next year will bring. Where do you think we are?
I do think the next year is going to be better. But, the most interesting thing for us right now is the fact that everyone I've talked to lately says that fall enrollments are up. I worried about that all summer. Our enrollment numbers are as high as they've ever been—for applications, admissions, and paid deposits. With the unemployment level what it is, we may be shocked in the end. It's only when heads hit the pillows at our institutions that we'll know what's really going to happen. Most institution leaders I have talked with are hoping that things will stay flat for a while and then improve over the next year.
As far as financial impact of the crisis, what have you seen for the various types of institutions?
The impact is across the board. Obviously, public institutions in states like California and Nevada are being hammered by the reductions in state budgets. It's a totally different ball game for them. From a public-private standpoint, private school performance varies dramatically. If you talk to schools with very modest endowments, they're not as affected by the crisis. They are looking at fairly stable enrollments; in fact, some predict their best year ever. On the other end of the spectrum, I think it's safe to say that this is probably the first time we've ever seen major Ivy League institutions take a huge hit. It's definitely a unique situation.
What are some of the lessons learned—things that have helped institutions to manage the situation this past year and that might guide you and others in the next year?
For the most part, we didn't do anything dramatically different, but work was much more intense. Our budget process, for example, required much more deliberate communication. Trustees, donors, students, and faculty wanted more information. My role as CFO changed significantly during that period, because people wanted to hear directly from me more than ever before. Of course, they wanted to hear that all was well and I couldn't honestly deliver that message. Instead, it was more like, “We will be OK, but all is not well.”
During the fall and following spring, we also put intense effort into developing “what-if” scenarios. At that point in time, we didn't know what was going to happen even 30 days later—if things would drop off even further or begin to flatten out. We anticipated what might happen and drilled down into quite a few different levels to consider what action could be taken given various circumstances. This was a common scenario for many schools.
Since TU is a private institution, we were better able to predict what was going to happen, based on our loss of endowment dollars. We have a standing fiscal policy in place that stretches out the dollars across time. Going forward, our spending will continue to drop off for a while. For the next couple of years, it will be painful; but, if enrollments hold, that will help.
So, communication from the business officer has been key to these efforts. Are you still in that mode?
More than ever before, and it's going to have to continue. When things go well, faculty, staff, and students don't really care about financial status. When they think, “I'm getting all the materials I need to teach my class”; or “My dorm room is beautiful”; then everything is good. Now that the budget is tightening, they want to know the details.
Faculty, in particular, know that with a loss of resources most schools cannot continue to operate exactly the way they've operated in the past. Something has to give. People are looking programmatically at what they can and can't change. Even in the smallest schools, administrators are looking at programs that are marginal and saying—for the first time, “Is it smart having this?” or “Should we do more with those resources by putting them into stronger programs?”
So yes, now people want to hear from us, the business officers. It's the biggest change I've seen in my 25 years in higher education. Usually, we stand behind the president and the provost—we're not the people out front providing a lot of press commentary. But now, they want us out there talking about what's happening financially, what we are doing about it, and how we are handling the budget. Of course, we're looking at cutting everywhere, and reducing expenses wherever we can.
So the behind-the-scenes role has moved front and center. Do you think most of our members are ready for that?
Yes, I do. If you take a cross section of our population, many of us are devoted in a lot of ways to professional memberships both regionally as well as nationally. We are out there making presentations, interacting with other leaders, and working to be even better business officers. In those ways, most of us have gained experience and preparation for this new role.
Apart from the economy, what are the other issues that are going to be prevalent this next year?
The economy has blown everything else off the table for a while. But, once we get solidified, we'll refocus on some of the same issues we've been dealing with for the past couple of years. On our campus, sustainability has become a huge issue with our students and faculty. We're fortunate in the fact that our president is very big on sustainability, as well. Our students are significantly involved in these efforts. That's a good thing, because I don't typically deal with students on a daily basis, and this gives me that connection.
Of course, when the subject of sustainability rears its head, people look around and say, “Who's going to take care of this?” They call in the business officer in large part because of the financial component, as well as the fact that the physical plant, maintenance, and energy management typically fall under our administration. So, for the past three years, my office has devoted a significant amount of time to these programs and issues.
Sustainability is going to just keep getting bigger; it has to. Probably in the next 5 to 10 years, sustainability programs will create a life of their own; much like technology has evolved and become a part of nearly everything on campus. Some of the bigger schools have already created the position of senior sustainability officer. This person may still report to the business office, but there is often a more structured setup that includes staff. NACUBO recognized this push several years ago and made sustainability a priority, with actions such as identifying a director of environmental leadership on staff.
The other big area is campus security. That is not going away, either. Obviously, efforts ramped up hugely after the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois incidents. On our campus, during the past 10 years, we've more than tripled the size of our security force. And, beyond numbers, we've grown the quality of our program significantly. Our officers are better trained and paid than in the past. And, as a private institution with a campus safety and security staff rather than a full police force, local police patrol our campus, too.
Over the past year, we installed a voice messaging and texting system, security monitors in building lobbies, and a bike patrol. The voice and text messaging communication system provides us with the ability to get messages out to students more quickly regardless of the situation. I oversee the crisis management team, and whether handling an Oklahoma tornado or any other emergency, it's never a bad thing to be able to contact people quickly.
NACUBO has taken the lead in this area with our Campus Safety and Security Project, a collaboration with a number of organizations, focused on providing resources for all types of higher education institutions. We'll continue to roll out new resources across the next several months.
That's a good segue to our discussion of your leadership role as NACUBO's new board chair. If you can accomplish one thing for NACUBO and its members in the coming year, what would you like that to be?
Accomplishing only one thing for NACUBO is like accomplishing one thing as a business officer. It's just not realistic. NACUBO has such a broad array of things that we have to do—and I do mean have to do—for the industry. So, the main thing is to be responsive to members in a very direct way on key issues.
For example, I've seen a marked increase in the quality of our representation on Capitol Hill, and we need to continue that. And, if you think about the past year, the things that NACUBO has pushed out have been impressive: information on the new Form 990, advice on underwater endowments, and major resources for dealing with the economic downturn. The number of issues that have been addressed is huge—many more than we've seen before. It all speaks to a broad spectrum of issues.
The other significant dynamic is that these initiatives are being done in large part by encouraging member participation. NACUBO has brought in small pools of business officers, discussed issues and challenges—either online or off-site—and produced documents and programs that are meaningful for all of us. That's the case with the expanded webinar broadcasts, which have been an incredible tool.
When my auditor calls me and says, “Kevan, there's a great webinar on the Form 990 I'd like to participate in,” and I find that he's referring to NACUBO's program, it's clear that these resources are getting out there. Also, when I talk with my president, all these issues are fundamental and critical to his work as well. When he sees that NACUBO is leading the pack in delivering information and advice in significant areas, he's completely supportive of my involvement as a member and as a volunteer.
One of NACUBO's best benefits is Business Officer magazine. We've begun distributing copies to our trustees, and they definitely read them. A lot of the trustees serve on other college and hospital boards, and they run family funds, investment funds, and endowments. So the magazine topics are relevant and the publication has gotten wide recognition.
With all that's being done, I guess I'd say the one thing I need to continue to do is to keep NACUBO moving at the current speed—which is breakneck. If I can achieve that, it will be a good year.
To summarize that point then, you'd like to make sure that NACUBO responds quickly on key issues in a very direct way for members?
Yes, and that includes member input and participation. That's what helps make it work best.
NACUBO is going to be doing a lot of work on our strategic plan in the next year. What are your thoughts on where we've been with that plan, and where do you think we need to go with it in the future?
We've got a great strategic plan and we've worked through quite a bit of it. It's now time to quickly review what we've completed, consider what we have left to do, and decide what we want to carry forward. Once we're at that point, we will put a process in place to create the next strategic plan. I know John Walda has been working on this. Because of the framework that we established last time, the process will be that much easier.
That said, our strategic priorities themselves could be dramatically different and much more difficult to achieve. Planning in the current environment is very tricky. Not only is it difficult to predict what will happen in the next three to five years; but, things can change incredibly quickly as a result of economic and financial conditions or governmental policy changes. From a strategic standpoint, that makes planning tough.
We're going through this on our own campus. We're one building away from completing a 10-year master and strategic plan that was developed 12 years ago. It was an incredible plan. I walked into it 10 years ago and had the responsibility of putting much of it in place. Campus leaders, trustees, and staff, along with community representatives, had created a working document with goals that, at the time, many of them said simply could not be done.
But, we wanted to move academically toward the top 50 institutions in the country. We wanted to transition from a commuter campus to one with an on-campus life. That meant undertaking and funding significant construction. And in 10 years we've done that. We've built or are in the process of constructing all buildings called for in the plan. While we're not yet in the top 50, we've moved up in the U.S. News and World Report ratings from 171 to 82 this year.
Like NACUBO, the master plan goals are near completion, and now we need to create another plan. Now, we've got to be those people who had the vision to see where we needed to be in 10 years, and create a plan and strategy that can actually get us there.
There's a rigor involved in sweeping plans that actually are accomplished. You don't complete a 10-year plan without some discipline in the process, right?
Exactly. Any time you create a robust plan, there's a whole lot involved in its success or failure. One huge thing the TU planning committee did was to completely think through, from a funding standpoint, what they had to do. Then, they went out and raised that money. Perhaps more importantly, they thought through the steps. For example, they realized that the first thing we needed to do was convert TU to a residential campus. In 10 years, the methodical building of housing units increased campus residency from 26 percent to 82 percent this year.
The subsequent plan will be a bit like weight loss: The first 10 pounds is fairly easy. This next 10 will be more difficult. It's the same thing with NACUBO. John Walda has moved us up to the next level in quality and performance. The following step is that much more difficult. But, with a well-thought-out plan focused on members' future needs, NACUBO will continue to evolve in a way that tracks with the uncertainties of the higher education environment.
JEFFREY N. SHIELDS is senior vice president, constituent and member services, and chief planning officer at NACUBO.