Leading During Transition: An Interview with NACUBO Board Chair Nicole Trufant
The Solutions Exchange
NACUBO 2022–23 Board Chair Nicole Trufant believes that in a time of transition in higher education, people are looking for purpose—and our institutions can offer that. In this conversation with Bryan Dickson, NACUBO's Director, Student Financial Services and Educational Programs, Trufant discusses her growth as a leader, post-pandemic challenges to higher education, and her goals as NACUBO’s board chair.
By Bryan Dickson
Nicole Trufant has built her career around supporting higher education institutions during periods of growth and change. Her new position—since July 15—as vice president and chief financial officer at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, offers her a unique opportunity to do that.
Trufant came to Colby from serving as senior vice president of finance and administration at the University of New England, a position she had held since 2007. During her nearly 25 years at UNE, she developed strategic financial plans undergirding a sustained period of growth and expansion.
A certified public accountant, Trufant holds bachelor’s degrees in accounting and sociology from the University of Southern Maine, a master’s degree in management from New England College, and a certificate in executive management from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.
She is immediate past chair of the Eastern Association of College and University Business Officers, and she has been active outside her professional field with service on the boards of the United Way of York County and the Kennebunk Free Library in Kennebunk, Maine.
Now, while assuming the new role at Colby, she simultaneously turns her focus to guiding the NACUBO Board of Directors through a time of organizational leadership transition.
You’re very new in your position at Colby College. How did your earlier experiences help prepare you for this role?
At UNE, I worked for a president who was intent on building a thriving, modern university with competitive advantages that created real value for students. She envisioned making UNE a hub of innovation globally. However, the university had significant deferred maintenance issues, a negligible endowment, and no cash reserves. I quickly realized I had to be the financial and administration systems architect to support her vision. At the end of her presidency, UNE had experienced exponential enrollment growth by expanding from three to six colleges; opening an international campus in Tangier, Morocco; constructing more than a dozen new buildings; and becoming fiscally sound.
UNE taught me that the president supplies the vision or the “why,” and I help to figure out the “how.”
Did you have any “aha” moments along the way?
While growing into the role of a vice president, I think one of the biggest “aha” moments I had was learning to let go of the technical skill set and embracing the roles required of leadership. I learned to work with other cabinet members, communicate, listen, think with the university mindset, and be aware of what was happening in higher education writ large. That became more important to me as a valued cabinet member than being the person with the technical expertise at the table—I could rely on staff to do that.
Tell me about your mentors.
I’ve had the gift of extraordinary mentors who came in different roles and weren’t necessarily my bosses. Danielle Ripich, the president who led UNE’s transformation, is my most influential mentor. We spent countless hours together. I learned so much from President Ripich that it’s difficult to distill into a sentence or two. I think the most important lesson she taught me is how to thrive in a constant state of ambiguity.
Janice Lamontagne, UNE’s director of university budgeting for more than 30 years, is another significant influence in my life. Despite having just a high school education, she had an uncanny ability to explain complex budgets and develop financial models. When I received the NACUBO gavel in July, I texted Janice, and I told her she was on the stage with me. Janice passed away unexpectedly in August, and her legacy of fiscal discipline at UNE continues.
I think for someone to mentor you well, they need to care for you deeply. Over time, a professional relationship becomes a bond that’s as tight as the one you have with a family member. And when you yourself are mentoring someone, you’re giving of yourself, too. It’s give-and-take on both sides.
Higher education is facing unprecedented challenges posed by COVID-19, the economy, and more. Given the leadership lens, what skills do CBOs need to effectively handle these challenges and move their institutions forward?
Leadership skills are key because CBOs need more than technical skills. On the leadership side, they need self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, and the ability to pivot as they work with different types of people and different groups, to change the message appropriately. Often as business officers, we have to deliver news that isn’t going to be well-received. We have to say no, or not now, or let’s think about this in a different way.
And what about the technical skill set?
Ever-increasing regulations make that a continuing challenge. CBOs need a thorough understanding across a broad range of areas, as well as a sense of when to bring other people in.
I highly recommend paying attention to what NACUBO offers in professional development programs. You don’t learn these topics when you’re getting your degree in accounting or earning your MBA. You have to be self-taught and motivated to learn how higher education works.
For example, I read the NACUBO Financial Accounting and Reporting Manual for Higher Education (FARM) when I worked in accounting—not all at once, but in chunks. I paired that with NACUBO’s online courses and other professional development. When you do that as you rise up in the ranks, you’ll be able to back up your soft skills as a leader with solid technical skills.
And what about the employment side?
Post-pandemic, people are looking for purpose. People are looking for community. They want to make a difference. Higher education is designed to offer that, so we should be able to attract more talent.
What role do you think advocacy will play in a post-pandemic higher education landscape? How might CBOs deepen their advocacy efforts?
It’s a really interesting time in our political landscape right now. I don’t think advocacy has ever been more important. The more people we can get out there discussing the value of education and advocating for us, the better. I would recommend that people use NACUBO’s tools, and certainly partner with their government relations departments. You can also advocate within your institution, too, by finding students and telling their stories.
You can be an advocate with your board of trustees. Use the story of a student behind the data when you’re presenting finances or financial services, to bring it to life. We have the facts and the data to support those individual stories, so we should provide those connections.
What are your thoughts about the coming year as NACUBO’s board chair, and what would you like to accomplish in that role?
I would like to keep our strategic blueprint moving forward this year, continue the focus on the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative, and advance our advocacy.
But of course, top of mind is to find a strategic visionary leader to be NACUBO’s new president and CEO, and to have a seamless transition. The NACUBO leadership team and staff are wonderful at what they do, and they should always feel supported by the board, especially this year.
BRYAN DICKSON is Director, Student Financial Services and Educational Programs, NACUBO.