Facilitator in Chief
Ruth Constantine, NACUBO's board chair for 2011-12, finds rich rewards-and intense challenges-in the halls of academia. By fostering strategic conversation, she plans to bolster the association's ability to help members lead in unpredictable times.
By Marta Perez Drake
When Ruth Constantine began her career as a financial manager at a Seattle-based nonprofit retail cooperative, she realized that her passion lay in working in an organization that supported a cause she could believe in.
After moving to Vermont, Constantine was offered a job at the chancellor's office in Vermont State Colleges. "I was looking specifically at nonprofits, but hadn't really thought about working at a college or a university. It was a wonderful discovery for me and I instantly took to it," she says.
Since then, her passion for higher education has been unwavering. She has served in various capacities at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, from 1981 to 1991, and since 1991 at Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, where she is the vice president for finance and administration. Like many others in higher education, Constantine says she's honored to work at an institution with such an important mission. "Smith's primary emphasis is on the education of undergraduate women, and we are motivated by the big difference that we're making in their lives," she says.
Constantine also enjoys being able to combine her professional interest in finance with the business side of higher education. "A lot of people are drawn to work in nonprofits for the cause," she says. "I find that even on the business side of education, people like to teach and impart knowledge. Higher education—and any nonprofit—has to succeed as a business, or it can't do its good deeds. It's been rewarding for me to spend my career supporting the mission of education through the work I do."
Effective processes, efficient use of resources, and careful planning seem even more important now as higher education institutions in the United States grapple with limited resources, the changing pace of technology, and increased global competition. "It's a critical time to be engaged in planning, resource allocation, and the various jobs that we NACUBO members do," Constantine says.
In an interview with Business Officer, Constantine discusses the challenges that higher education faces, the board's plans to address those, and why she views her board chair role as primarily that of a facilitator.
How does your background in financial services influence your approach in your current role?
There are two areas of interest for me. I was originally very interested in finance and I focused on that as an undergrad. My financial skills have always been very important in my career. When I sought my MBA, I was able to focus in a completely different area: organizational behavior. That's what really honed my management skills. I believe my management skills are critical and are valued as much as my financial training.
Critical to your success?
Critical to my success, and important to my work with others. At Smith, I chair several campus committees, staff four board committees, and meet regularly-individually and in a group-with my eight direct reports. Some of those meetings focus on financial topics, but like other CFOs I manage many non-financial areas as well.
Are you doing more management now because you're in a higher-level leadership role or was that always significant throughout your career?
For anyone on the business side of higher education, technical skills will only take you so far. At some point, somebody's going to ask you to work with a team, to collaborate with peers, or to become a supervisor. It's just a matter of time until you're asked to put more generalized management skills to work.
Our expectations in higher education, at all levels of the organization, have evolved over the years. Our institutions need people who can work well across organizational lines. Everything we do demands interaction, collaboration, teamwork—if not formal supervision—as we move up into other roles. I have had to evolve and grow, in terms of collaboration and networking.
It's important to hone your technical skills and that's part of what NACUBO and the regional associations do—emphasize professional development. But, at our annual meetings, workshops, and beyond, we focus not only on technical matters, but also on organizational and management skills.
You've been very active in the regions and in NACUBO. How has that experience contributed to your sense that networking is important?
In my first year of working at Vermont State Colleges, I was sent to a NACUBO workshop on intermediate fund accounting. I valued that highly because it was training that I couldn't get elsewhere.
When I was at Cornell during the '80s, [former university controller] Jack Ostrom was very involved in NACUBO and EACUBO, and he encouraged others at the university to participate as well. The work environment at Cornell supported employees who wished to seek more knowledge and develop their skills, to network with others, and learn from colleagues. Jack was known for nurturing a number of women—and men—who went on to become business leaders in higher education.
Since leaving Cornell to join Smith almost 20 years ago, I have attended a NACUBO or an EACUBO meeting nearly every year, and have appreciated the educational and networking opportunities there. My involvement with the associations has been invaluable to me. At meetings, many were willing to advise and guide me, and I try to do the same for others.
What is the best part of your job? What motivates you to go to work every day?
My favorite part of working at Smith is that the faculty and staff are dedicated to the education of young women. I have always been engaged in women's issues and often in organizations advocating on behalf of women, so it was natural for me to work for a women's college where my career and other interests could come together. I feel fortunate to serve in an organization where everybody—regardless of the jobs they do—can have the opportunity to feel that they're making a positive impact on these women's lives. Smith never rests. It's an incredibly ambitious organization and we're always looking ahead to what we can do next.
I also enjoy and value the professional relationships that I've gained through my NACUBO and EACUBO involvement, and at Smith. I work with wonderful people, and we have a very strong team in finance and administration.
Economic times continue to be tough, particularly for many higher education institutions. How are you and your colleagues adjusting to an environment in which you're being pushed to do many things differently?
There's no doubt that higher education is shifting and changing rapidly, especially since the recession. Resources are much tighter now and few institutions can afford to continue doing everything as they have in the past. Even as our economy slowly recovers, given the changing pace of technology and globalization—along with competition from other countries—we must adapt. Most colleges and universities can be confident they will survive this challenging period, but we all feel it's important for us to be responsible care-takers to be sure our institutions will continue to be strong in the future.
At Smith, we have had to address budget issues and become comfortable with more market volatility. And, we see international competition as something looming ahead but not yet experienced on our campus.
What advice would you give to midlevel business officers?
Continue to sharpen and develop your technical knowledge, and if you're interested in advancement and expanding your area of responsibility, work on your "soft skills" as well. If something holds you back from a promotion, often it isn't a lack of technical know-how. Instead it can be: Do people enjoy working with you? Do I think you'll be a good supervisor? How effectively have you worked with other departments and your peers?
Other than financial concerns, what do you consider to be the top issues business officers are facing today?
First, for decades our federal and state governments have shared with colleges and universities a commitment to educate current and future citizens. That's changing, and it's gotten hard to keep up with the media reports on states' withdrawal of support for higher education. Withdrawal of government support has happened so rapidly—it's quite a shift in the way governments are seeing their roles and responsibilities in educating students.
Another issue is the need to learn and guide how advances in technology are affecting our industry. Distance learning has had a significant impact on higher education, and all institutions are adapting the education they provide to make use of available technologies. At residential institutions like the one I work for, we're adding blended courses and we're always attentive to the role that technology is playing.
In addition, higher education is experiencing a loss of credibility. There's an erosion of confidence that colleges and universities are putting students first and the organization second.
In your opinion, why is it that higher education is experiencing a loss of credibility?
Politicians are under a lot of pressure, and they may feel desperate to balance a budget, be good stewards, and make careful decisions. We can all see that continuing to fund higher education isn't really winning across the board.
So, we need to demonstrate to the public that scholarships and loans are used to directly benefit students, not the universities they attend. Here, NACUBO's advocacy in Washington plays a critical role for higher education.
Last year, you were the chair of the NACUBO board's ad hoc committee for international issues. What do you see as the main connection points between U.S. institutions and those abroad? What role can NACUBO play in preparing members for increasing interaction and competition in the international space?
For decades, a number of American colleges and universities have provided educational opportunities for American students studying abroad. Now, some universities have opened campuses in other countries, becoming direct providers of education to student populations in those locations. In addition, many countries are working hard to retain students in their own countries. American institutions will face this new competition as other countries invest in their systems of higher education.
The ad hoc committee gave guidance to NACUBO in the development of the Web-based International Resource Center [IRC] that the association launched this summer. At the IRC site, members can find information such as country-specific data, examples of policies developed by other institutions, and links to additional useful resources.
I applaud NACUBO for recognizing the need to help our constituents excel in expanding educational offerings to students in other countries. The IRC is designed to support those efforts.
As board chair, what areas do you plan to emphasize this year?
As a board, we plan to continue our focus on the initiatives we have been working on over the past two years. We've been discussing the international issues, but that's just one example. Ad hoc committees of the board have been working in four areas that align with NACUBO's strategic plan—international efforts as well as communications, academic administration, and shared services—and these will continue. In addition, NACUBO is expanding its advocacy in Washington, and I'm pleased that we have added another full-time professional in this area—the director of congressional relations. As board chair, my role will be to provide an effective environment for thoughtful discussion, guidance, and decision making.
What will success look like for us? I would like to look back on the year and know that the staff and board worked effectively together to implement our ambitious plans, provide excellent leadership, and serve our constituents well.
MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is vice president, professional development, at NACUBO.