The Solutions Exchange
Meet Susan Scroggins, NACUBO’s new Board Chair for 2021-2022. A self-described first-generation nontraditional student, Scroggins earned her B.A. in organization management from Calumet College of St. Joseph and her MBA from Valparaiso University, where she serves as senior vice president for finance and treasurer. In this conversation with NACUBO Director of Tax Policy Mary Bachinger, Scroggins identifies her leadership priorities as board chair and the valuable lessons she has learned from others along her professional journey for which she is most thankful.
By Mary Bachinger
You’ve been at Valparaiso since 1996, serving in various roles in finance and administration. How prepared did you feel for your current position as CBO?
Before I got my start in higher education I worked in public accounting and manufacturing, so when I first came to Valparaiso, I had to learn the nuances of higher education with regard to its different pace and collaborative spirit. I’ve been here now for 25 years, and it feels like each position has laid the groundwork for the next. I began in grant accounting, then led the finance team through an ERP software conversion—still pre-Y2K at that point. When I was promoted to vice president for administration, I learned a lot from leaders in those areas, including campus police and HR, gaining a broad knowledge of how the institution works.
In my move to the CBO position, I assumed responsibility for finance, debt, endowment, and property management. I never said no to an opportunity, but I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about my mentors on campus who helped opened doors for me. They include our previous CBO, Charley Gillispie, and the late John Palmucci, who is known and beloved by so many NACUBO members. He served Valparaiso on an interim basis. In addition to his wealth of knowledge, he had this incredible calming effect on campus.
Higher education is experiencing unprecedented challenges as a result of COVID-19. What skills do CBOs need to move their institutions forward in strategic ways during these difficult times?
Wholistic collaboration. I don’t remember a time in my 25 years at Valparaiso when I have seen as much collaboration across departments. It has been amazing. As one example, we brought our emergency management team together to share their expertise. We each have different experiences and perspectives, and being able to leverage all that talent is essential.
Another fundamental practice we learned to hone over past 18 months has been ensuring we stay on top of day-to-day changes as they relate to legislation and funding opportunities that have come our way. I personally have been hopping on every webinar available to see if there is some new tip to pick up.
Are there changes you have made at Valparaiso in response to the pandemic that you hope to keep?
A number of things. We erected a huge tent in the middle of campus, installed a frisbee golf course, and strung hammocks up around campus to encourage as much outdoor activity as possible. We’ve also pivoted to holding smaller, more intimate ceremonies that I think add value to our student experience.
- Outlet for enjoyment and relaxation: My Australian Labradoodle. I’m also an avid flower gardener.
- Recent read: Your Next Five Moves by Patrick Bet-David. It’s a great book on strategic thinking. Normally we think about our next two or three moves, but as organizations we really should be looking much further ahead. I find this especially timely as we all are thinking about how to attract and retain the best talent.
- Favorite quote: Two stick with me that I strive to incorporate into my approach as a leader. The first is: “Don’t find fault, find a remedy”—a famous quote by Henry Ford. The second one I’m not sure who first said it, but many will know it: “Build a team so strong you don’t know who the boss is.”
What role do you think advocacy plays in a post-pandemic higher education landscape?
While we aren’t post-pandemic quite yet, I think building relationships with legislators is really important. One of the priorities of our new president, José Padilla, has been to strengthen relations with our legislators. I also think as CBOs need to do all we can to support NACUBO’s advocacy efforts on our behalf. We can do this by responding to surveys and requests to talk through what we are experiencing at our institutions so that NACUBO has a good handle on our true needs.
You have served in a number of volunteer leadership capacities, including as president of CACUBO and on various committee boards. How have those experiences informed your career development?
I have always believed that you get so much more out of board and committee service than what you give. When you serve on a volunteer basis, you often start out thinking about the opportunity to share your knowledge and experience in a helpful way—and that is part of it. But, I know I have always reaped the benefits. Not only is it an opportunity to better understand your shared challenges, but you also get to adopt the good ideas of others.
Do you have an example of a good idea you’ve borrowed?
I remember serving on a finance committee where I so admired the way the treasurer presented the financial report that I decided to mimic what he did with my presentation of our financial report to our board. He basically lifted up front and center the five-year historical data on key specific data, condensing these data points in graph form. While I always talked about these things, I hadn’t drawn the kind of picture he did visually such that if you didn’t have time to read the full report, you could really digest the information from those graphs.
As you think about your upcoming year as board chair, what would you most like to accomplish?
I really want to advance the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative that NACUBO has started and that staff have made great strides with, including with regard to board composition. I hope to leverage the new policy so that our nominating committee can bring together more diverse opinions and thoughts. This would also include greater support of specific DEI initiatives like the NACUBO Emerging Leaders Program we started this year that has been so well received as an opportunity to encourage under-represented populations to participate. This ties directly to our continued support of building the CBO pipeline.
Advocacy is also front and center for me. My priority is to support the efforts of staff to provide relevant and timely information of importance to CBOs. We know that some of our institutions are going to be more challenged than others in the coming years.
Do you have any a-ha moments to share from your career that you think makes for strong leadership?
I already mentioned the importance of collaboration and persistence. I’ve also always tried to lead from a position of positivity. While many of us thought we would be done with this pandemic by now, some of the same worries remain. Continued positivity requires sticking to your priorities even when things may seem dark or overwhelming.
MARY BACHINGER is Director of Tax Policy for NACUBO.
Check out this video interview from the NACUBO 2021 Annual Meeting featuring Susan Scroggins.