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Business Officer Magazine
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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.

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Constantine Bio in Brief

Family: Two daughters, Becca (in a Vista job at Fairfield University, Fairfield, Connecticut) and Alison (married with three daughters and living in Haifa, Israel). "I love having three granddaughters age five and younger. I go to Israel at least once a year. It's a fascinating country, steeped in the long history of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths and, of course, immersed in the current conflicts in the Middle East."

Free-time activities: Kayaking with friends in the summertime on the Connecticut River or lakes near Northampton. "I use my vacation time to travel in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Last spring I spent 10 days in Barcelona, one of my favorite places to be."

Summer reading list: Past board chair Cynthia Teniente-Matson and Constantine share the same favorite author—Michael Connelly. Constantine is currently reading several novels written by Archer Mayor, a friend who lives in Newfane, Vermont.

Favorite "escape": Spending time with friends outdoors in the summertime, and in winter, enjoying everything Northampton has to offer: its arts and music scene, trendy shops, and great dining.

Best professional decision: A year after college graduation, Constantine left the appraisal unit of a large insurance company and went to work at a large food cooperative. "That was the beginning of a rewarding, lifelong career in nonprofits."

Biggest passions: Family. "Like any parent and sibling, I wish everyone lived a little closer to me." Constantine is also devoted to nonprofits and has been involved in numerous community organizations, including two health-care
organizations, the Chamber of Commerce, a crew team, the YMCA, and the regional community foundation. She is also a fan of the University of Connecticut's women's basketball team.

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A Commitment to Women's Education

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Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, opened in 1875 with just 14 students. It was founded at a time when there were practically no choices for women who wanted an education equal to what was available to men. Today, it is among the largest women's colleges in the United States, providing students from 48 states and 72 countries top-notch education in the liberal arts and sciences. The college is strongly committed to the education of women at the undergraduate level, and admits both men and women as graduate students. Smith College is a member of Five Colleges Inc., one of the oldest and most highly regarded consortia in American higher education.

Programs: 1,000 courses in more than 50 areas of study 

Total enrollment: 2,500 undergraduates in Northampton and 250 studying elsewhere

Faculty: 285 professors in 41 academic departments and programs 

Endowment: $1.4 billion

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Colleagues Commend Constantine

*Colleagues in Ruth Constantine's network share firsthand knowledge of her leadership qualities:

"I have worked with Ruth for nine years, through good times and bad, budget surpluses, and financial crises. Whatever the issues—and there have been some thorny, difficult ones—Ruth approaches them with an analytical mind, a calm head, and common sense. She also loves to laugh and her good humor propels many a meeting forward. Ruth is a rower—a fact that says a lot about her temperament. Rocky waters or smooth, she keeps pulling her oar, in rhythm with the others in her boat." 

CAROL CHRIST, president, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts

"Ruth Constantine has provided excellent leadership to every organization with which she has been affiliated. Her style brings out the best possible result from everyone involved. She personifies the qualities one most wants in a leader—ethically principled, remarkably effective, personable, and respectful to all—and with an enormous joy for life that permeates everything she does. Cornell University, Smith College, the local organizations in Northampton, and EACUBO have had the benefit of her expertise, willing engagement, and great gift for laughter, and all are better for it. NACUBO will be, too!"

MARGARET PLYMPTON, vice president for finance and administration, Lehigh University, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania

"Ruth is a stellar example of commitment to leadership in higher education administration. She is the epitome of stewardship and practical approaches to difficult problems. She ensures that all voices are heard while contributing in a thoughtful inclusive manner. She will be a great chair and the NACUBO board is lucky to have her. On a personal note, Ruth is great fun as a travel mate and she shares my love for good food and fine wine!"

CYNTHIA TENIENTE-MATSON, chief financial officer, California State University, Fresno, and NACUBO board chair 2010–11

"Ruth Constantine, whom I have known for many years, is in my view an ideal chief financial officer. She not only has an impressive grasp of the many financial aspects of the job, including investments, but she is very familiar with the full range of business concerns of an institution—from human resources to insurance to facilities. Ruth would be an indispensable member of any planning initiative. Most importantly, you do not have to be afraid of her, as she has a fair amount of patience and humor. She was most helpful to me during my service as chairman of Smith College's Board of Trustees. She will be a superb board chair for NACUBO."

PAT MCPHERSON, president emeritus, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania

"Ruth is one of the most positive and upbeat people I have ever known. Even during a time when she faced tremendous challenges at Smith due to the recession and circumstances in her personal life, Ruth remained a great forward-thinking, positive leader at EACUBO who laughed often and helped all of us work through similar challenges on our own campuses. She has a calm and approachable leadership style that puts others at ease and lets them know that their thoughts and opinions are welcome and valued. At the same time, Ruth is masterful in focusing and guiding a discussion to make sure that in the end, there is a clear, actionable plan."

JAMES R. FISHER, vice president for administration and finance, Finger Lakes Community College, Canandaigua, New York

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