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Business Officer Magazine
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Help Others Learn by Doing

Sessions in this track were designed to help business officers understand and deal effectively with the key challenges facing higher education leaders.

Let's Come Together

The culture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology played a central role in the successful handling of the recent financial crisis, said Israel Ruiz in the session “Engaging the University Community to Solve Your Toughest Problems.” Ruiz, MIT's vice president for finance, was joined by Allison Parisi and Stephanie Toews-Moeling, senior financial analysts, and Margaret Gray, director of organization and employee development.

As a data-driven science and engineering school with the motto Mens et Manus (Mind and Hands), Ruiz said, MIT values innovation and problem solving. The leadership of the institution honored and leveraged the belief in learning by doing to make the tough decisions it faced.

To help the audience understand MIT's approach to the current crisis, presenters first outlined the institution's boom-and-bust cycle of the dot-com bubble. An endowment that increased 58 percent in 2000 had turned into three years of negative net assets by 2007, stalling a host of building projects midcycle.

The earlier crisis exposed an underlying structural budget deficit, so MIT developed a strong financial framework for planning and learned to deliver on a plan. Increased diversification helped lead to a balanced budget by 2008. During the first crisis, two initiatives worked well: an administrative task force and a successful administrative intervention. What hadn't worked as well was that the institution had been slow to take action.

To respond to the current crisis, a task force of 200 participants—including faculty, staff, students, and alumni—worked for nine months to address academic, administrative, student life, and revenue enhancements. MIT's goal was to reduce short-term expenses by $50 million and make permanent cuts of $50 million to $100 million. A data team provided consistent data to all the groups.

The heart of the process was a Web site, with access limited to the MIT community, that served as an innovation hub, idea bank, and discussion forum. Ultimately, 10,000 ideas were winnowed to 200, which served as the basis of institutional initiatives that eventually met the financial targets.

Ruiz and his team said the overall effort has led to an evolving culture featuring a collaborative mind-set and a cost-effective focus. The MIT presenters concluded with three key ideas:

  • There is no recipe for effective crisis response, although community readiness is helpful.
  • Collective leadership builds buy-in and long-term organizational leadership capacity.
  • Leveraging institutional core values yields results with intention and integrity.

Women Still Lag Behind

“The perception is that women have 'made it,' and there's nothing more to talk about,” said Lucie Lapovsky, principal of Lapovsky Consulting, in her opening remarks at the Women's Forum. She explained that this false assumption led her to work on the White House project, “Benchmarking Women's Leadership.”

“Only about one third of higher education chief financial officers are women,” noted Lapovsky. Recent studies by Ernst and Young and Catalyst bear out similar numbers in other sectors.

The White House project made six overall recommendations for organizations intent on improving women's leadership:

  • Work to achieve a critical mass of women in leadership roles in every sector.
  • Use financial resources strategically.
  • Amplify women's voices in the public arena.
  • Collect and analyze data.
  • Maintain accountability through setting targets.
  • Improve flexibility in the workplace.

Lapovsky asked participants to consider the question, “How can you help motivate and assist more women in attaining leadership positions?” One audience participant suggested that women encourage one another to believe in themselves and not to sell themselves short. She gave the example of making a transition from a private accounting firm to a higher education accounting position. “I was ready to accept the low-end offer of $80,000, because I had no experience in higher education,” she said. “But my female colleague said to go for the top salary in the range, which was $100,000. I asked for it and I got it.”

Another participant recommended paying attention to succession planning. “Let other women know about upcoming opportunities,” she said, “and don't be apprehensive about recommending them for promotion.”

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