Lifetime Learner, Inclusive Leader
Earning his graduate degree in his late 40s is just one way Charles Tegen, NACUBO's board chair for 2012-13, embodies his commitment to education and lifelong learning. Bringing this spirit of inquiry to his new leadership role, he intends to engage the board in expanding upon the association's latest strategic plan while continuing to serve the membership's immediate needs.
By Marta Perez Drake
Growing up near the campus of Southern Wesleyan University, in Central, South Carolina, just 10 minutes from Clemson University, Charles Tegen had early interactions with students and faculty on a small liberal arts college campus.
"My dad taught English and literature courses at Southern Wesleyan, and at a very early age, I saw the way collegians interact," says Tegen. "They were much older than I; but later, I saw how certain students accomplished more because of their educational experiences." The whole environment—attending school with children of faculty members, understanding the impact of a university on the quality of life, and respecting his father as a teacher and a pastor—all that combined to attract Tegen to higher education. "My father's focus on lifetime learning—he was awarded his Ph.D. when he was in his late 40s—also had a strong impact on me," says Tegen.
In his years with Clemson, Tegen has appreciated the opportunity to be part of the changes occurring in accounting, financial reporting, and the role of finance in supporting institutional initiatives. His team-player mentality was put into practice during the recent economic downturn. "I am impressed with the way the Clemson University community pulled together to focus on strategic objectives while state appropriations were being reduced back to funding levels last seen in the 1990s," he notes. As comptroller, Tegen is proud to be a part of the Clemson effort.
In an interview with Business Officer, Tegen explains how you can gain big-picture perspective while staying in one place; why listening is at least as important as talking; when to focus on the strategic, whatever the distractions may be; and why it's so important to remain true to yourself and your organization.
Summarize the series of events that influenced your reaching this point in your career-a leader in higher education and the incoming NACUBO board chair.
After I earned a bachelor's degree in business administration at Southern Wesleyan, my first professional job was in public accounting—which was quite fulfilling—and I earned my CPA. But, Clemson University has always been part of my community, and I always thought it would be neat to work there. I did have a concern about its being a public university; my perception was that it would mean traditional bureaucratic government work. I had no interest in doing that.
In the end, however, my familiarity with Clemson won out, and I started there as an internal auditor. I soon learned that Clemson, along with its academic environment, functioned as multiple businesses: housing, dining, research initiatives, and much more. From an audit perspective, this wasn't really a major change—just a different constituent group. As things turned out, I've stayed at Clemson for 33 years now, and a big influence on my remaining in the field is that I've met and learned from many SACUBO and NACUBO colleagues along the way.
What role did your desire for lifetime learning play in your remaining in the higher education field?
Quite an important one, actually. Higher education and the business office are constantly evolving and changing. If you look back 20 or 30 years at the typical business officer's role, it's amazing how much the position has expanded to include a strategic focus today. In the accounting world, the introduction of the FASB and the GASB to accounting standards has literally pulled apart higher education financial reporting, while the demand for consistent and relevant management reporting is essential for effective decision making. So, every day is a challenge, requiring new and expanded learning. To remain current and relevant requires lifetime learning, for sure.
How has your decision—to remain on the same campus—affected your perspective on higher education and the business officer profession?
If all your experience is at one place, people assume that you have only one perspective. But involvement in SACUBO and NACUBO has certainly changed that for me.
In the early '80s, I became involved in SACUBO and NACUBO continuing education programs. Networking opportunities resulted in establishing relationships that literally span the nation. Private and public institutions, small colleges, and complex universities—the diversity that higher education represents means that the work never becomes stale, and there is always something new to learn. If you remain curious, you're going to meet people, experience different things, and seek out best practices. Consequently, your perspective can become quite broad.
Another important way to keep your perspective fresh is to look ahead and anticipate changes, knowing that you can be engaged in the decision-making process and have some influence on those changes. You may find opportunities to do this when individuals present situations to you as an opportunity to learn, or you may simply see an opportunity for yourself and seize it.
It sounds like you went to SACUBO and NACUBO looking for ways to enhance what you were doing at Clemson?
Absolutely. I started as an internal auditor and eventually moved into the position of director of financial reporting. My relationships with other individuals and peers led me to see other ways that things were done. I figured out early that a lot of my peers would go only to conference sessions that were specific to their jobs. Instead of doing this, I tried to broaden my perspective, picking one or two presentations that might not relate to my current job responsibilities.
What are some tangible examples of activities that helped you to expand your perspective?
Back in the early '90s, I attended a professional development session on the responsibility-centered management (RCM) model. I wasn't in the budget area, so it didn't seem to have direct benefit to me. However, I learned from the session that the delegation of responsibility and allocation of resources in a decentralized environment could work at my institution.
In similar circumstances, I attended a business writing session and learned that if you don't include your main idea in the first couple of sentences, it's likely that most readers will not get the message. Insights like that, which you pick up over time, can have a real impact on your effectiveness.
You eventually became more involved in NACUBO. What impact did that evolution have on you?
Initially, with NACUBO, I served, with vice presidents and senior finance staff from other regions, on an ad hoc committee on financial reporting quality. As the only member in the room who was "still an accountant," I was given the opportunity to interact with higher-level leaders and a perspective on what was important.
My best introduction to NACUBO was accepting an invitation to serve on the Accounting Principles Council (APC), from 1997 to 2002. Not only did that involve NACUBO advocacy efforts, but it was also the time when the GASB reporting model was being changed. The APC had an opportunity to offer practical recommendations on the changes before they were finalized.
We were able to identify the changes and their impact on higher education and then develop training materials and publications to help members understand the changes coming. Over a two-year period, we offered 16 workshops educating NACUBO members on the new reporting model. This example shows how NACUBO's advocacy efforts affected the final standards and in what ways the association could then develop efforts to train its membership on the reporting changes.
When my tenure as the Accounting Principles chair came to an end, I had an opportunity to volunteer at SACUBO in additional capacities. Serving on the research and doctoral committee and also as the coordinator for drive-in workshops fed my interest to be involved in the professional associations.
My involvement in NACUBO and SACUBO has provided several rewards. It allowed me to learn from the rich and diverse experiences of others. It also provided several fulfilling and helpful networking opportunities. The networking relationships, whether through SACUBO or NACUBO, are invaluable. Where else can you gain access to such a large group of subject matter experts? It is a virtual army of colleagues all over the country. Because of this network, when a challenging issue arises, it's a matter of picking up the phone and asking your peers for their insights and advice.
You mentioned that you enjoyed being at Clemson because you could be part of the change process, see the change efforts through, and anticipate further developments. What major changes have you seen during your time at Clemson?
One observation about Clemson—and most people who were around in the early days would likely agree—is that the financial officer represented somewhat of a gatekeeper role. The business office was the keeper of the records.
We produced financial reports on a monthly basis and, most likely, people didn't read them. The information may not even have been available to them unless they had exceeded budget or violated a rule. Most interactions took place when a person was called in and told that they'd spent too much or perhaps too little. At that time, deans and department heads were limited on how to spend their budgets. Across time, the academic leaders have been empowered to make informed spending decisions through delegation of authority and improved financial and management reporting. In the business office, our role has expanded to that of financial facilitator, better understanding what the needs are and trying to figure out ways to make those strategic priorities a reality.
The other thing that I've seen is an increased emphasis on strategic thinking in the financial area, a process that was not as evident during my first 20 years in higher education. But, Clemson's leadership has moved the institution to focus on aligning its decisions to the university's mission and priorities, and executing plans to meet the strategic goals.
This attitude was tested and proven successful in our institution's approach during the 2008–10 time frame; it was a time when the business office—by necessity—became an integral part of the leadership team as coordinator and facilitator of smart budgeting in tough times. The need for transparency and relevant financial information defined our role as a key team player.
Based on your rich experience, what other advice do you have for your fellow NACUBO members?
No matter what the distractions are—and we all know there will always be many—remain focused on the big picture. That is, always keep in mind the institution's mission, strategic direction, and priorities. It means that you must find the resources to achieve what you set out to do.
Another key factor is to listen as well as you communicate. Business officers can plant themselves in their offices and wait for people to visit, or they can get out and interact. No single party can solve the challenges we face today. It is imperative to create an environment of trust. If the academic and administrative areas don't work together, you're not going to move forward.
What about advice for people who are starting out—taking their first position in higher education—or those preparing themselves for more senior leadership positions?
My advice for those who want to move up the leadership ladder is this: "You've got to do more than is required." Expand your perspective, look beyond what you currently do, and understand the impact of what you're doing on the larger institution and the community perspective. Get out of your office, listen, understand, and communicate. If you don't do those things, people don't get to know you, and you're just another cog in the wheel. But, if you're willing to learn and grow, leadership opportunities will come. The opportunity is there, if you'll work hard and embrace it.
I have also learned over the past 30 years that it's extremely important to protect your integrity and your ethics. So for those of you just starting out, do the right thing, for yourself and for your institution. Remember that reputation is everything. And a good reputation must be backed by solid ethics and a life of integrity.
What are your thoughts about your upcoming year as NACUBO's board chair?
The dynamic of NACUBO, from my perspective, is that we have a wide array of volunteers and experts—from skilled and talented NACUBO leaders and staff to the devoted volunteers. My hope is to continue energizing all that talent, and my desire is that by the end of the year we can look back and say that we've engaged the board in an open format in the important work we've set out to do. That means that it is important for all board members to feel that their voices are heard, as we focus on NACUBO's long-term strategic goals while serving our members' immediate needs. At the same time, the NACUBO board will need to stay alert to inevitable challenges that lie ahead.
As for a specific goal, I'll feel that I've been an effective board chair if we take a survey of the board members and they can conclude that during this year I was truly engaged, and moved NACUBO ahead toward its strategic direction. The board is in the process of reviewing those strategic goals right now, so actually completing that effort, identifying those priorities, and establishing ad hoc committees to focus on the specifics will all be part of my charge and of our year's work together.
In terms of anticipating change, what might be something that you won't necessarily accomplish during your term, but that you could set the stage for in the longer term?
understand unfolding developments rather than merely reacting to them requires an investment in learning—constant surveillance of many information sources. That's where learning and communicating come in. One major area is that of economic uncertainty. For example, federal and international issues will have a direct impact or exert significant pressures on higher education funding and on students' family budgets.
My observation, even with what happened in 2008 with the economic challenges, is that NACUBO was on the front end of the curve, promptly providing materials and resources that business officers were desperate for at the time. Those immediate and sometimes unanticipated needs—whether delivered by a webcast, a conference call, or a workshop—are the kinds of things we must be ready for. My goal will be to keep NACUBO nimble so that we can be ready for the next unexpected challenge.
What should members know about NACUBO and the board's work?
The NACUBO board reflects the diversity in higher education, with some of the best talent of the country's higher education leaders. While board members are forward thinking and strategic, we also recognize the importance of serving the current needs of our members through advocacy, professional development, and networking.
We're continually expanding the delivery methods for products and services, significantly growing the number of webcasts, for example, and exploring new technology tools as appropriate. Refer to Business Officer and the NACUBO Web site to stay current on what's coming up next.
You've spent your entire career in the South and at Clemson. What makes that region of the country distinctive, and what has kept you there all this time?
I believe the South is a very friendly environment. It's not artificial, and overall it's a great place to live. We typically say that in the South, there is no stranger. If you stay long enough, you're family.
I've had the opportunity to meet people from all four regions and adopt a more national perspective. In addition, the higher education community is a wonderful place to work, regardless of where you live. While I tend to think that there's no better place in the world than the South, each geographic area has its unique differences, and they're all special.
MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is vice president, professional development, at NACUBO.