The Solutions Exchange
Russ Hannah is the chief financial officer at Arkansas State University and NACUBO’s 2023-24 board chair. He talked with Katy McCreary, NACUBO’s director of public relations, about his goals for the association and advice to other members.
By Katy McCreary
1. You just started your term as NACUBO’s board chair. What do you hope to accomplish over the next year?
Our overarching goal is to support NACUBO’s new president and CEO Kara Freeman in her leadership transition. We have a tremendous legacy from Susan Whealler Johnston—she did a lot of great things and laid a strong foundation. Kara will build on that but also will take it in her own direction. The board’s role is to govern, not manage, and to work with and support her.
2. How have your experiences in higher education shaped your career path?
I’ve had a very traditional career path. I started as an auditor and then transitioned to campus and have held almost every position in the finance office. I’ve been treasurer, controller, associate vice chancellor, senior associate vice chancellor, and now chief financial officer.
I recognize for a lot of people today, that’s not how they came into higher education or how their career path has progressed. Mine has worked well for me, but I don’t think there’s any one path or any one-size-fits-all approach.
3. Given your lengthy career at Arkansas State University, what advice do you have for aspiring CBOs?
I’ve been with A-State for 32 years. I’ve been blessed to work at the institution I graduated from in my hometown. A-State has been supportive of my professional and personal goals and I’ve had opportunities to do the things I’ve wanted to do while remaining at the same institution.
We all get to points in our career where we feel like we’ve done all we can do in our current role. I’ve been fortunate when that’s happened something new has come along. Moving around certainly works well for some. That’s just never been something I’ve had to do to grow professionally and personally.
4. That sounds like a common adage in higher education—that sometimes you have to move out to move up.
That’s right. Knowing what your personal and professional goals are is important. You have to assess: Can I achieve them where I am, or do I need to make a move? Everybody has to decide that for themselves. There’s no one path to success. It’s, “What do I have to do to be successful as I define it and am I willing and able to do it?"
5. We hear often from our members about the top issues facing business offices today, from improving employee retention to ensuring student success. What skills do CBOs need to effectively handle these challenges and move their institutions forward?
The number one thing is agility. You have to be able to assess what a particular situation is and what’s needed. Don’t adjust your principles or your goals, but be willing to adjust your tactics, how you go about accomplishing those goals.
In higher education today, situations on campuses are so diverse. Some institutions are thriving, and others are struggling. Other than strategic focus and agility, it’s difficult to determine what competencies you need to be successful because they vary by the situation. What works well in one environment may be ill-suited to another.
Oftentimes for business officers, agility is not a natural inclination, but it can be developed with practice.
6. Does NACUBO have a role to play in helping folks build that agility?
Absolutely. One of NACUBO’s best competencies is its ability to provide professional development. One of the strengths of the association is the breadth of the involvement of members from all types of institutions. That helps NACUBO shape its professional development to be responsive to differing situations and evolving challenges. NACUBO is outstanding at this.
7. Advocacy is a strategic priority for NACUBO, as you know. What advice would you give to business officers who want to get involved in advocacy or expand their advocacy efforts for their campuses?
I agree this is another of NACUBO’s great strengths. We certainly saw this during the pandemic in the role NACUBO played helping our members understand what was going on at the federal level. And NACUBO’s advocacy is unquestionably stronger when the association hears clearly from our members about the issues they’re confronting, the concerns they have, and the opportunities they perceive.
On a local level, I think that varies by institution. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved with our regional chamber of commerce where I chair the governmental affairs committee. This has been an excellent way to get involved with and gain experience in advocacy. I’ve also served with a number of nonprofit organizations and learned from their advocacy efforts. If advocacy is something a member is interested in, I encourage them to get involved. We all benefit when our voices are heard and our positions clearly articulated.
8. What are the benefits to getting involved at the local level?
Most importantly, you gain an awareness of the issues and how the processes work. Advocacy and working with government at any level is incredibly complex and nuanced and you learn from that. You also build a network of colleagues you can interact with, learn from, and call on when you need advice or information.
9. We’ve touched on a few things that NACUBO excels at. What about NACUBO makes you most proud, and what advice do you have for newer members?
NACUBO is excellent at anticipating and responding; its ability to look at what’s going on and what’s evolving, and then figure out quickly and effectively the role the association needs and is able to play makes it incredibly valuable to higher education and our members.
I am most proud of our people. Kara is going to be excellent as president, and we have an outstanding executive team. All of the folks I’ve worked with at NACUBO are first-rate and very good at what they do, as is our board of directors and network of volunteers.
My advice is get involved. Let the NACUBO leadership, either the board or the executive team, know you’re interested in serving. Participate in the Emerging Leaders and Fellows programs. Those are great examples of NACUBO’s professional development efforts, and a way to get involved, make yourself known, and let NACUBO know you want to do more with the association.
10. Is there anything else you’d like to share with the NACUBO membership?
I’m very grateful for the opportunity to serve as board chair. NACUBO is incredibly well-positioned thanks to the foundation that’s been laid and now Kara’s leadership. I look forward to serving with my fellow board members and to the work before us. Our members should expect great things in the year ahead!
is director of public relations at NACUBO.