Cynthia Teniente-Matson assumes leadership as NACUBO’s board chair for 2010–11 with her top priority in clear view: Strengthen the association’s policy direction to help business officers tackle regulatory issues and other broad challenges.
By Marta Perez Drake
Thinking big is in Cynthia Teniente-Matson's blood. Born in Texas, she came of age in Alaska, and now calls California home. In fact, she's resided only in the three biggest states in the nation—something that has contributed to her ongoing zeal for expanding her personal and professional horizons through new experiences and self-reflection. “I enjoy learning, tackling new challenges, and contemplating how I can do my job differently,” she attests.
For the past six years, Teniente-Matson has served as chief financial officer at California State University, Fresno (Fresno State), many miles from the University of Alaska at Fairbanks where she got her start in 1985 in the procurement office after earning her undergraduate degree there. “Like many who launched their careers in higher education, I began as a student assistant,” says Teniente-Matson. She credits her interest in remaining in higher education to strong mentors in her early years and a steady progression of opportunities for professional development and growth.
Teniente-Matson went on to earn her MBA at the University of Alaska Anchorage, where she then served in various capacities, eventually including vice chancellor. “What has kept me excited about higher education throughout the years has been the opportunity to advance regional university initiatives, be part of the country's largest university system, and get involved in a broader level with both WACUBO and NACUBO,” she says.
The latter happened somewhat by chance, admits Teniente-Matson. In 1997, WACUBO hosted its annual meeting in Anchorage. At the time, Stan Nosek (recently retired vice chancellor of administration at the University of California, Davis, and a former NACUBO board chair) was a volunteer leader with WACUBO. He invited a group of University of Alaska business office staff to become involved in the WACUBO meeting, says Teniente-Matson. “Before then, I had never been to either a WACUBO or a NACUBO meeting.” She has since climbed the leadership ranks of both organizations, serving as WACUBO president in 2007, and as of August 1, assuming the national role of chair of the 2010–11 NACUBO Board of Directors.
In an interview with Business Officer, Teniente-Matson talks about the importance of mentorship and professional development for business officers, the need for institutions to nurture strong community connections, and the imperative for leaders to champion the big issues facing higher education.
How does your earlier background in procurement services influence your approach to your current role as CFO?
When you deal with large contractual issues within a diverse vendor community, you quickly come to understand the importance of transparency, conflict of interest, and ethical dilemmas. So that background has certainly influenced my thinking and approach in my professional and volunteer roles. What looks appropriate may well be aboveboard, but you must always be concerned about being accountable to the public and avoiding any appearance of impropriety. This is critically important for every chief administrator and chief fiscal officer of an institution. I would also say that developing an understanding of contracts—and the associated legal or risk issues around the scope of work and conditions—has helped me develop an informed approach with regard to entrepreneurial activities.
You've been steadily promoted to positions of increasing responsibility. What career advice do you have for midlevel business officers as far as preparing themselves for leadership positions?
A key factor is being realistic and prepared. This entails understanding not only the commitment of time and learning required to transition to a position of greater responsibility, but also recognizing what you should learn to advance to that next level, whatever that is for you. For example, what classes do I need to take? Which associations should I belong to? Who are the people who can advise me about what I need to learn?
I recommend identifying a mentor who can help frame the questions and find answers that help sort out exactly what you are looking for in that next professional experience, what organizational models best align with your values, and even what attributes you seek in a boss. A large part of what attracted me to Fresno State was my understanding about how the various components of this job appealed to me before I submitted my resume.
What have you most valued from your mentoring relationships that you think others should look for?
Honesty, quality professional advice, and a teaching- and learning-centered approach, much like what a student would expect. This is an approach I've tried to use when I mentor others, framing conversations around what I want someone to learn from a particular assignment or project. For example, “I'm asking you to take this on because I want you to learn these three things or get this kind of experience.” This lets the mentee know from the very beginning whether the assignment sounds like something he or she wants to try. And if not, then we look for other opportunities that might fit with his or her professional interests or skills.
Community outreach and interaction is something you have focused on for some time, as early as your leading a promotional plan for the University of Alaska Anchorage campus bookstore. What can business officers gain from building strong ties with their communities?
In my various roles within the University of Alaska System, community interaction was probably one of the most critical elements of my job. This is true in my current position at Fresno State, where the mission of the institution is clearly defined as an engaged regional university. Whenever your focus is on an entire region, you have to be engaged with the community. Under those circumstances, a critical role for an administrative or financial officer is to make sure that those connections are in place and to develop practices that enhance and influence community relationships.
One way to do this is to place yourself in the perspective of a community member—from the outside looking in. You soon realize how difficult and daunting it can be to work with a university because of its size and complexity—not to mention its parking challenges. Many community members are at a loss to find the right administrative contact, which is why it may seem easier to connect with faculty members based on their particular areas of expertise. A member of the public or a community group that wants to advance a partnership opportunity in conjunction with a university has to stumble upon an administrator at some point. So it's obviously in the best interests of the community and the institution to make certain the pathways for connections exist. I've intentionally made this a focus in my work, including serving on a number of local governing boards.
What are some examples of community projects in which you have been involved?
One recent example is a tax initiative that was developed specifically for regional transportation projects for which there was local agency participation. Our university was not named in the initial legislation, but once the legislation was enacted, it required formation of a citizens' advisory board. Fresno State is, of course, a major user of public transportation in our region, with numerous cars and buses traveling to and from our campus on a daily basis. I applied for a position on the board in my role as university vice president and have been involved in assisting with regional projects that also benefit the university. I fulfilled a three-year term on the board and served as chair for two years.
My involvement allowed me to meet a variety of community and agency leaders who have become important partners. It also enabled me to help define the role of the university as it relates to some of these larger regional issues. While some projects may seem rather mundane, they have an impact on our campus master plan; are pretty important in terms of funding mechanisms for our area; and have an economic, social, or environmental impact beyond the institution.
Currently I'm serving on a neighborhood development council called the El Dorado Park Revitalization Project. This area is adjacent to the west end of our campus, where about 2,500 of our students live. From an economic standpoint, this is a rather beleaguered part of the community that has been plagued with crime and other challenges. Our university master plan calls for development of a larger football stadium and a student athlete village in this area, and we're looking to strengthen our ties there and to help enhance its vitality. Through the efforts of the project's community action planning group on which I serve, the city council has authorized a separate planning zone to give this area its own neighborhood designation. That would make it eligible to apply for development funding. By partnering with a Hispanic-serving institution like Fresno State, the neighborhood will also be more competitive for grants. This is truly an example of community involvement that has a direct benefit to the institution and the neighborhood.
Would you say that most California State University campuses are actively engaged within their communities?
It is common for institutions to engage their communities. I find Fresno State to be a role model in this area because we are a regional university serving a high population of first-generation, college-bound students and we are leading the way for economic development and job creation in an area significantly affected by current economic conditions. We primarily serve eight neighboring counties and have a broad institutional reach in our large geographic area. The San Joaquin Valley, in comparison with the rest of the state, has a number of challenges that the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley is trying to address through a prosperous economy, quality environment, and social equity—the three E's of sustainable growth. Fresno State is instrumental in this unique regional collaboration.
While the economy has been showing signs of recovery, many higher education leaders think that colleges and universities will continue to feel adverse effects for some time. What do you see as the short-term and long-term financial challenges to institutions, and what advice would you offer other NACUBO members for managing these ongoing challenges?
First, something I never anticipated dealing with in my professional career was being furloughed. Quite frankly, I think many institution leaders were unprepared for this kind of labor action. And I don't mean financially unprepared, but administratively unprepared for the enormity of dealing with a campus that is closed or offering limited services [on furlough days] while simultaneously providing instruction. In addition, there are the administrative impacts of broad decisions that leaders have had to make about all our activities, particularly within a collective bargaining environment.
Another component that I would say has been enormously unusual, at least for California public institutions, has been the keen attention to liquidity. We have always dealt with liquidity; however, as a large state university you would not generally encounter the threat of running out of cash. So another unexpected role for some has been adapting financial and cash management practices, knowing that we might have to help the state fund our payroll and other operating and capital expenditures.
Longer term, we have to recognize and adapt to serving the public in this permanently reduced funding state. As business officers, we recognize that our traditional business models are so integrated into “all that is university life,” and how we adjust service delivery with the kind of organizational change needed won't happen quickly. We also know that the old models can't sustain our institutions. For instance, we should challenge all our models for when and how we deliver instruction. This includes serious consideration of differential pricing to offer students what they want, when they want it, at a price they can pay, while also taking into account all the complexities of federal financial aid. I think we will struggle for some time in determining the new business model for each of our institutions and how best to do business within that paradigm.
Because we've all had to reset financially, another big responsibility for the CBO is to do expectation management of what the new operating environment means and how to get where we need to go.
Other than financial concerns, what do you consider a top priority facing business officers today?
Professional development or talent management remains an important issue for our profession. Senior leaders in particular have to redefine our leadership strategies and reexamine what we need from our workforce. For instance, the ability to deal with ambiguity is an attribute that I've always looked for when I hire someone, but I'm convinced that we have not typically identified this attribute in our employment conversations. The truth is that these days we are all working under great uncertainty, and some people can maneuver with ambiguity better than others. In that context, we have a real challenge to understand not only the new technical skills required for a job but also the way we train employees to remain adaptable. And we then need to realign our performance metrics and management approaches to these new skill-set requirements.
Turning to your NACUBO leadership role, how would you articulate your plans for your year as board chair?
First, I have to say that I'm very excited to assume this leadership role with NACUBO. One component that is of particular interest to me is to work with John Walda and NACUBO's staff in continuing to define the association's advocacy direction on the legislative front. I'm looking forward to helping implement NACUBO's strategic plan so that it remains in alignment with what business officers around the country need as a result of the many regulatory changes that have taken place in recent years and other changes that could significantly influence higher education going forward.
As a member of both WACUBO and NACUBO, I greatly value being able to call on my colleagues for advice and assistance. As volunteer leaders with WACUBO, we've spent a lot of time ensuring that we have the best product on the street and getting the best people in our region involved in helping us deliver that product. That's been rewarding and inspiring and is an approach I plan to continue in my role with NACUBO.
What should members know about the work of the NACUBO Board of Directors?
Members should understand how much time the NACUBO board spends identifying strategic issues, facilitating national conversations with the members, and aligning efforts to move forward with the products and services that really matter on a daily basis to business officers. Whether that's focusing on leadership development, professional development, strategic and financial planning, technology planning, endowment management, or issues of transparency, the NACUBO board has been diligent in guiding efforts to deliver what the membership wants and needs. That includes tools business officers can use in their local communities to better explain the value of higher education. NACUBO is also looking to leverage its role as a business officer thought leader with other associations that serve our institutional communities.
Under your leadership, the board will begin implementing a new strategic plan. What are the key initiatives central to the plan, and how will they affect the membership?
Over the past 15 months the board has been actively involved in revising the updated strategic plan to best serve the needs of our members. The board is taking a forward-looking approach to identify what is important for the coming years in higher education and preparing business officers to be successful in the academy. From those critical conversations, thoughtful goals have emerged that include developing resources that business officers need in all aspects of their work, leading advocacy efforts in the federal agenda, and proactively responding to new trends. NACUBO is an association leader and voice within Washington on several federal advocacy issues, and it's important that we leverage this expertise and reputation to ensure that our needs are appropriately represented. Likewise, listening to what our members are facing on their campuses and translating that to professional development programs or products is important to the staff and board.
Finally, as you reflect on your career thus far, is there a particular experience or a powerful “Aha” moment that has substantively shaped your leadership approach and outlook?
I have been fortunate to serve under two incredible leaders: at Fresno State with President John Welty, and at the University of Alaska Anchorage with Chancellor Lee Gorsuch, who is now president at City University of Seattle. They each have inspirational and visionary leadership in their DNA. When I have faced decisions or situations that I find personally trying, I have been able to reflect and emulate lessons and behaviors I've observed or learned from them. The power of self-reflection, critical thinking, and leadership development are characteristics that require constant nurturing. Having role models who provide great wisdom ensures that you are never alone in your journey as a higher education business officer.
MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is vice president, professional development, NACUBO.