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Mary Wheeler

These days, Mary Wheeler, NACUBO Financial Accounting and Reporting Manual (FARM) author and consultant, works with many institutions on operational and reporting issues, organizational change, and system conversions. Previously, she held financial leadership positions at Stevens Institute of Technology, the Arizona State University (ASU) Foundation, Cornell University, and St. Lawrence University. In conjunction with FARM, Wheeler also works on NACUBO accounting tutorials and has authored the recently published Endowment Fund Valuation Guide and its predecessor, Unitizing Endowment Investment Pools.

In 2012, Wheeler received higher education’s highest honor for continuous commitment to college and university accounting and reporting: NACUBO’s Daniel D. Robinson Award. She also has been a member of NACUBO’s Accounting Principles Council and is a frequent speaker at conferences and on webinars.

Sue Menditto, NACUBO’s senior director of accounting policy, spoke with Wheeler to learn more about her background, accounting likes and dislikes, and how FARM might change as we begin a new year.

Tell me about your professional background and your path to becoming NACUBO’s FARM author. I worked in public accounting for four years after graduating with a B.S. in accounting at SUNY Oswego. It was a local firm, and I had many not-for-profit clients: governments, schools districts, unions, and charities. In making the decision to move on from public accounting, I wanted to work for an industry that made a difference in people’s lives, and I chose higher education.

I started as assistant director of financial services at Skidmore College, and then became controller at St. Lawrence University. I then moved to Cornell University, which was one of my best career decisions, progressing to associate controller responsible for nearly all of the accounting and reporting.

I would tell my staff that Cornell was the “major league” for accountants because we had to prepare financial statements under both FASB and GASB. Cornell’s primary financials are prepared following FASB. However, we also had to prepare a subset of financial statements following GASB for the four contract colleges that Cornell managed on behalf of the State University of New York.

After Cornell, we moved to Arizona and I worked for the ASU Foundation, and then became the AVP at Stevens Institute of Technology and implemented Kuali Financials there. The variety and exposure to different types of institutions led me to be able to write for FARM and cover the many perspectives and environments of NACUBO members.

What are you most proud of in your career, or what have you found most interesting or been drawn to? Having worked in a variety of higher education institutions, I have been exposed to many operational and accounting issues, varieties of skillsets, and different ways of thinking. The exposure has helped me develop the ability to explain accounting concepts in non-technical language for most people to understand.

Also, when I was at Cornell, representing the needs of independent institutions in the development of the Kuali Financial software was very rewarding. Again, I learned a lot working with smart people from universities including Indiana University, Michigan State University, the University of Arizona, the University of Hawaii, and San Juaquin Delta Community College.

What do you enjoy most about working in higher education? The networking and sharing of ideas.

Any thoughts on the most challenging standard issued by FASB? By GASB? All new accounting pronouncements or accounting standards updates seem challenging at the start. We were all challenged by FASB’s revenue recognition guidance, but as we peeled away the requirements, it became a documentation issue rather than a change to how we were accounting for revenue. Some FASB concepts that still cause confusion are releasing restrictions, applying the “deemed spent rule,” electing simultaneous release, and displaying and discussing operating results.

GASB’s series of standards on right-to-use assets (leases, technology arrangements, and public-private or public-public partnerships) have taken time to implement. Ultimately, there are conceptual similarities that are analyzed in FARM. We also are waiting to see how GASB will handle revenue recognition.

Do you have opinions on FASB and GASB due diligence proceedings, such as advisory group meetings, project research, board meetings, exposure drafts, comment letters, and review? Yes, in some respects it’s like watching the sausage get made. The meetings can be painful to listen to, but the deliberations are useful to understand when the exposure drafts are issued and we’re developing comments. I think that for both boards, by the time the standard gets to the exposure draft stage, their minds are clearly made up and we are unlikely to persuade them to any significant changes.

Thankfully, you, Sue, have given NACUBO such credibility that FASB and GASB staff will reach out for insight as they are developing positions. And with very smart people representing higher education on the GASB’s Government Accounting Standards Advisory Council (GASAC) and the FASB’s Not-for-Profit Advisory Council (NAC), we do have opportunities to influence the accounting standards at an early stage.

You and I have talked about streamlining FARM; can you provide a snapshot of what we are thinking? There is a lot of redundancy in FARM, with the same concepts addressed in multiple chapters. This became apparent when we were revising the chapters to reflect FASB’s recent not-for-profit reporting changes prompted by ASU 2016-14. The current chapter organization served a purpose for a while, but it would be more useful to address a topic from beginning to end; say, student receivables, tuition, and auxiliary revenues, reporting, and disclosures (rather than going to separate chapters for receivables, revenue, financial statement reporting, and disclosures). My goal before “passing the pen” to a new FARM author is to make FARM easier to navigate and maintain.

You and I also have talked about the fact that FARM is organized by balance sheet and income statement categories but does not necessarily focus on unique aspects of higher education, such as tuition, institutional aid, endowments, debt, research, auxiliary functions, and so forth. Do you see any value in more in-depth unique topic analysis, and why? The people who are accessing FARM are likely already trained accountants and understand the debits and credits of common transactions. What we want to provide are the nuances or anomalies of not-for-profit accounting and reporting, especially as it pertains to higher education. Hopefully, we can figure out how to.

What do you think about audited financial statements, auditors, and how guidance in the Audit Guide dovetails with authoritative guidance and FARM? There needs to be a clear delineation of responsibilities. In my work in NACUBO Consulting, I see many institutions depending on their auditors to prepare and present the financial statements. Auditors are supposed to audit statements prepared by management. Management should be presenting the results to the board. Also, when I was an auditor, I realized I could not begin to know more than the finance employees who were there every day. The Audit Guide is helpful and should be used with FARM. One of my goals with FARM has been to empower accounting professionals to develop their skills to feel confident that they can prepare their organization’s financial statements.

Any insights into college and university vulnerabilities given your role as part of NACUBO Consulting? Certainly, the enrollment declines, especially for small liberal arts institutions and regional public institutions, are concerning at the sector and institutional level. More specifically, the difficulty in attracting accounting and finance staff will require institutions to find more creative ways to deliver critical processes more efficiently. Shared services, automation, better financial software—all of it has to be on the table.

What was it like to be part of NACUBO’s Accounting Principles Council? It was one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Serving and learning from very smart people and making lifelong friends were just a few of the benefits. Also, meeting in Norwalk with FASB and GASB was very empowering. I remember when FASB was considering a very onerous standard to prove the fair values of alternative investments instead of relying on the reported net asset value. Council members indicated that endowment pools can have hundreds if not thousands of alternative investments and discussed the burden and practicality. After that meeting, FASB reversed course and adopted NAV as a practical expedient for valuing alternative investments. It was very rewarding to make a difference for the entire sector.

What might you say to campus accounting and finance professionals about volunteering with NACUBO? In addition to building a network of colleagues and expanding your knowledge, it can be one of the most rewarding things you do during your career. I know it’s “one more thing” to add to what is likely an already busy schedule, but the few hours per week or month will make you more effective in your current position and may provide opportunities for future advancement.

This interview was conducted for the Winter 2024 edition of Accounting & Tax Quarterly.

Contact

Sue Menditto

Senior Director, Accounting Policy

202.861.2542


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