Skip to content Menu

Be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable: Rick Wernoski


[Kara] Hello and welcome to Career Conversations, a podcast from the National Association of College and University Business Officers. I’m Kara Freeman, president and CEO of NACUBO, and I’d like to thank you for listening. In each episode, you’ll hear higher education professionals share their personal experiences, career advice, and nuggets of wisdom. You can find resources for today’s episode, as well as a wide variety of research and tools, at

[Christine] Hi there! Welcome to Career Conversations. I’m Christine Simone, NACUBO’s director of leadership development, and I’m your host for the show. I’m here today with Rick Wernoski, associate vice chancellor for operational excellence at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Welcome, Rick.

[Rick] Thank you, Christine. And thank you for having me.

[Christine] Absolutely. So happy to have you here. So, could you start us off a little bit? Kick us off with telling us a little bit about your career path. How did you arrive at higher ed as a career?

[Rick] Sure. So, it's been a 30-year journey. So, I was introduced to higher education during my undergraduate college years. During my summer and winter breaks I worked as a student assistant at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. It’s there where I was introduced to the important work of state-run health sciences institutions. Upon completion of my undergraduate degree at Clemson University, and as my first full-time job, I tried working as an accountant for a bank, but I quickly realized that my passion was with the mission of higher education.

With that, I returned to UMDNJ working with Robert Wood Johnson Medical School for the next 16 years as a budget analyst, department manager, and then as a finance and operations leader in the Dean's office. In 2016, I was presented with the opportunity to join the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy as the executive associate dean for administration and chief financial officer. That position grew into the executive vice dean and chief operating officer role. And along the way, I was also named the chief financial officer for the Eshelman Institute for Innovation.

Then, in 2018, after spending 25 years in an academic unit, I moved into the senior vice provost for business operations role at UNC Chapel Hill with a focus on transforming university-wide administrative operations. That led to the creation of the Operational Excellence unit in which I currently serve as associate vice chancellor for operational excellence under the Office of the Chancellor. So, over the past five years, my role has expanded, and the reach of operational excellence has expanded to include planning and executing executive level projects and developing continuous improvement competencies campuswide. So, that's it in about 30 years and a couple minutes.

[Christine] Alright, great. So, that tells us a little bit about how you go to higher ed as a career. Why is it that you stayed?

[Rick] I've stayed…it's about the work… my work that provides a foundation in transforming the lives of the students through the academics and also transforming society through research and public service.

So, just to share an example, a recent project that I had the opportunity to work on, under the direction of the UNC School of Education was to create a K-2 elementary school and do that in just 11 months. This project arose from a UNC System initiative to redefine and strengthen university partnerships with North Carolina public schools, improve student outcomes, and provide high quality teacher and principal training. But the end result of the initiative resulted in the creation of the UNC’s lab school now called Carolina Community Academy, which opened its doors in August of 2022 at North Elementary School in Roxboro, North Carolina.

And CCA has made exceptional strides towards its goal of increase in K through two literacy in Person County. Students’ reading proficiency scores have increased from 20 to 80 percent over the past year, and math proficiency scores have increased from 30 to 95 percent, for this partnership. And I'm so grateful to have the opportunity to work with the School of Education on this project whose academic expertise is broadening the reach of Carolina and improving outcomes for our youngest Tar Heels up in Roxboro, North Carolina. While the School of Education team are the academic experts, I’m equally proud of my work and the Operational Excellence team's contributions in the launch and facilitation and management of Carolina Community Academy. The impact of this project is something that we're all going to be proud of for many years to come.

[Christine] Wow, that’s a really cool initiative. Thanks for sharing that as an example.

[Rick] Sure.

[Christine] When you first got to higher ed, any first impressions? Things that stood out?

[Rick] The massive operation that a university is, with all the complexities of operations and large budgets, it's essential that universities operate most efficiently in support of their mission and commitment to the faculty, staff and students. It's like a small city or town. And it's all of its operations in support of the mission.

[Christine] Absolutely. So, in those 30 years of your time in higher ed, has there been a time that you experienced a setback or maybe you learned a lesson the hard way?

[Rick] I'm gonna date myself here with this simple example, but it changed how I approach things for the next 30 years of my career. In my first job, as a budget analyst at the Robert Wood Johnson medical school, I was told I had to backup data on my computer each night. Thirty years ago, I was doing that on a cassette. Unfortunately, I didn't challenge the process, even when it didn't make sense to me. I just did it because well, we always did it that way. Well, weeks later, my computer crashed and I found out the hard way that I wasn't successfully backing up my computer each night. The process was indeed incorrect. I then had to go back and manually reenter data from the previous three months. My faculty were counting on this monthly reporting and now my accuracy was in question. From that experience, I learned that just because something has always been done that way, doesn't mean that it's the best way.

[Christine] Oh, no, that's absolutely a terrible lesson to learn that difficult way. Are there other things you’d go back and tell yourself at the start of your career, I think obviously, you know, maybe not to back up in that manner. But anything else?

[Rick] I'd say, enjoy the ride. At times, it won't be easy, but it'll be rewarding. At the end of your career, you can look back and say you had an impact that was greater than the bottom line. During my time at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, I had an employee who worked for me who was a glassware washer, and her job was to pick up dirty glassware from the labs each day, clean and sterilize it, and return the glass to the lab the next day. She knew that if she didn't do her job with great efficiency, it would limit the faculty's ability to continue researching cancer. Her dedication and commitment to her role stuck with me and inspired me to be better at my work. And I could see the same kind of impact of those around me, and it's very rewarding.

[Christine] I love that example. So, it sounds like that was somebody who was influential to you even in passing almost. Are there others that have been influential to you throughout your career, maybe some mentors?

[Rick] Yeah. I've been fortunate over the years to work with great people and have great mentors, many of whom have shared the same approach which allowed me to challenge the status quo, encouraging me to bring ideas forward to challenge the current state and offer a blank slate, without barriers which might discourage innovation. They challenged me to always pursue best practices. They trusted and supported me even in failure, which inspired me even more, but to call out two–Alice Lustig at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School was a great mentor, and Bob Lowe, and at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill really instilled that in me.

[Christine] Wonderful. So, I assume you probably also now at this point your career are mentoring others. Can you tell me a bit about that?

[Rick] Sure. I approach mentoring the same way as I've been mentored and it starts with honesty and integrity. Trust is a very important part of a relationship and those that I directly and indirectly work with always know that I'm a man of my word. This understanding allows them the space to challenge themselves in their professional growth and development while knowing they have my support and guidance along the way.

[Christine] So how do you continue to engage and grow professionally? Are there can’t miss resources that you would recommend?

[Rick] I’d say, my approaches I say yes when I'm given the opportunity. As a start… at a university is a great learning environment. In addition to my day jobs, I've served as the interim associate dean for advancement at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy, I held a secondary teaching assistant professor appointment which allowed me to both teach and serve as the co-course coordinator in the masters level financial management of health system pharmacy course. I also served two stents as the interim executive vice dean for operations at the UNC Adam School of Dentistry. All of these opportunities allowed me to grow in areas that I didn't have direct experience at the time.

And I'd say outside of my direct work experience, I look for finding similar minds and learning from others. I was fortunate to be a part of the 2019 to 2020 NACUBO fellowship program. Still today, our cohort has a group text where we exchange ideas and ask each other questions of each other. We always look forward to any NACUBO events to get together and just sit down and talk. I also served as the best practice and research university comprehensive committees with SACUBO. And I have also served as chair of the educational council and I currently serve on the board of directors and the governance committee with the Network for Change and Continuous Innovation. So, with all that said, I take every opportunity to be a part of something bigger than me, and to learn from the new opportunities, and the very smart minds that are all around us in the academy of higher education.

[Christine] Sounds like a lot of really great opportunities to grow and lead and give back. Are there lessons in leadership you've learned along the way through those?

[Rick] I think it's important to have all voices at the table and to listen first. Having grown up through my roles in higher education, I have a great appreciation for the impact that leadership decisions have on the end user perspective. I have been in roles throughout my career where I felt the impact of decisions that were made without me. I have felt that impact directly. And I wish I had been a part of that during those times. And I could have been a part of those decision-making discussions so I could share the day-to-day impact that it might have on the end user.

[Christine] Now that you've done some reflection, we talked a lot of different topics. What do you think is the most important note or bit of advice that you would want to definitely make sure to leave with our listeners?

[Rick] I'd say be comfortable being uncomfortable at times. Personal and professional growth often occurs when you let yourself be vulnerable to the idea of a new opportunity. And I'm thankful to Carolina's community for creating such an environment for me and go heels.

[Christine] Rick, thank you so much for being on Career Conversations.

[Rick] Thank you for the opportunity to share 30 years of my journey.


[Christine] Career Conversations is a production of the National Association of College and University Business Officers. Audio engineering by Andy Nelson and TruStory FM. Music by Alon Peretz. Post-production support by Jenelle Dembsey. And I'm your host, Christine Simone. Thanks for joining this conversation. We'll see you next time.



 Listen on Google Podcasts      Listen on Apple Podcasts     Listen on Spotify     

Related Content

Career Conversations: Darrell Duncan

CBO Speaks Episode 141: Andrea Young

Vice President for Finance and Administration and Associate Professor of Mathematical Sciences, DePauw University

CBO Speaks Episode 142: Molly Mercer

Chief Financial Officer, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education