The Solutions Exchange
New NACUBO President and CEO Kara D. Freeman believes that we need to expand the messaging around the value proposition of higher education. She shares her vision in this conversation with Jim Matteo, vice president for finance and treasurer at Princeton University and member of the NACUBO Board of Directors, which took place on Freeman’s 47th day at NACUBO.
By Jim Matteo
Higher education changed her life, and Kara Freeman is eager to ensure that students coming along after her also see higher education as a life changing opportunity. As NACUBO’s new president, this involves continuing the organization’s efforts to clarify the value of higher education through its “More Is Possible” campaign.
Freeman began her career serving in management and technical positions with companies such as IBM, AT&T, and Lockheed Martin, then made the transition to the American Council on Education (ACE) in 2006. Over her 17 years at ACE, she rose to become senior vice president and chief operating officer. Her portfolio included oversight of facilities, finance, human resources, information technology, and meeting logistics functions.
Freeman holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and an MBA from The George Washington University, both in information systems. She also holds a certified association executive credential through the American Society of Association Executives and a project management professional certificate through the Project Management Institute. Her service extends to board membership with organizations such as EDUCAUSE, The Training Source, and AMHIC, a nonprofit benefits provider.
With her new leadership role at NACUBO, Freeman believes she is continuing the trajectory that began with her own university experience and expanded throughout her career of 34 years to date: championing higher education to benefit others.
You’ve been involved with higher education for a while, so tell us a bit about that journey and your path here.
I came up through technology as my foundation. I was in the for-profit sector for 17 years prior to joining ACE in 2006, and it’s been 17 years that I’ve been in higher education as well. I started in the late 1980s working for IBM while I was still in college at UMBC—that really set the trajectory of my career.
Then I worked for different startup organizations, where I had to set the strategic direction of all the internal operations. I was employee No. 14 of an organization that went on to have 440 employees when I left not even two years later. One of the feathers in my cap is that the systems and operations I put in place remained for 15 years after I left.
I first dismissed the job at ACE when I heard about it, then I thought, “How wonderful would it be to work for an organization whose mission aligns with my own personal values?” So that was my jump into higher education. I very quickly moved into management at ACE, and by 2009 I was ACE’s chief information officer and vice president of administration. That brought responsibility for a lot of the internal operations of ACE as well as the building at 1 Dupont Circle. Never did I think I would be a landlord!
I really loved the work at ACE. In the chief operating officer role, I had to know and understand the whole organization in order to do the best job I could do. Then I became senior vice president and chief operating officer, a role I thought I would stay in until I retired.
But then this opportunity at NACUBO presented itself and I got goosebumps. I thought, “This is what I’ve been doing for the past 34 years. I will still have an opportunity to impact our campuses, impact our nation, and do it with business officers.”
I was part of the search committee that helped to bring you to NACUBO, and I was really impressed with your passion during the interview process. Tell us what most inspires you about the mission of higher education?
Higher education is so very important. I know how it impacted my own life. I’m a first-generation college student; my parents said our older generation couldn’t afford it, but you’re going. Their generation had career opportunities in the DC area with only a high school diploma. They realized my generation might not have those same opportunities without a college degree. So, my siblings and many cousins after me all went to school (college). And I see how it affected our family’s lives, financially and otherwise. That’s where my passion comes from, because I know just how much the higher education community has positively impacted me.
Now, when it comes to work, to know that I can make things better for those students who are coming behind me . . . it just doesn’t get any better than that.
- Native of Washington, D.C.
- First African American woman to serve as NACUBO’s president and CEO.
- Middle child of five children.
- First-generation college student in her family.
- Inspired by the community service of her parents, who would take their children to help feed others on Thanksgiving morning so they would know there were people less fortunate than themselves.
How do you see the public role of NACUBO president and its set of responsibilities?
I see the role with three buckets. First, it’s ensuring that chief business officers have the resources and tools they need from NACUBO to do their work. Second, providing professional development opportunities to shore up the teams of business officers. And finally, maintaining a well-prepared staff at NACUBO to deliver on the needs of our members.
To do that will require listening. I’ve already begun an informal listening tour, hearing wonderful story after story from those who’ve been active with NACUBO for decades. And then I also want to go to campuses and visit with chief business officers to see the work in action. Because, while I’ve been a chief business officer, I’ve not been one on a campus, and I want to deepen my understanding.
And how did ACE help prepare you for this role?
I worked alongside Molly Broad, who was president for 10 years, and then Ted Mitchell, who has been president for the last five years; I was part of both their cabinets. From them, I got a really good understanding of the top issues for college presidents. For example, we tried to work with presidents to help them understand technology, in case something happened—and then the pandemic in 2020 happened. Business officers know what’s happening around the organization; there are differences in what presidents see as the top issues, and what we see as the top issues.
Are there a couple of issues you can identify as the primary concerns for NACUBO?
For me, the value proposition of higher education is a really big one. Those outside of higher education don’t necessarily think about how an institution might be the largest employer in their city, or the difference in pay over the course of a lifetime between someone with a college degree and someone without. There’s something lost in the translation, and I do think there’s work to be done to change our messaging.
The second priority for me would be student completion and success, to make sure those who are in school are getting what they need to finish a degree.
What can you say to chief business officers about skills that may be helpful?
I think our technical and foundational skills are a given. I could see us at NACUBO focusing on the ability to communicate, and the ability to work with others and be influential with others.
In your tenure here as president so far, what’s surprised you about the people at NACUBO?
You all have been so welcoming. So many people have given me their business cards or sent me an email saying, “Anything you need, please reach out to me and let me know.” As a natural introvert, I’m not normally energized by a lot of interaction, but I feel that I’m with my people, my group, and I’m so excited about this role.
The other thing that surprised me is the work of the NACUBO staff, a team of just over 40 people, who get so much work done. I’m amazed at the great job they do.
Coming into this role, you had a sense of what higher ed business officers do, but now you’ve seen it firsthand and embraced it. Talk more about, as you put it, these being “your people”.
I know it can feel like a lonely role in an organization, where you do so much in the background. From a business officer perspective, a lot of times the many different things you do might seem like a thankless job, but you see the result of your good work. For me, it’s wonderful to be with a group who get that and understand that there are things we have to do for the good of the order. I see very similar altruistic motives; you just want things to be done right.
Thank you for your time and for sharing your thoughts with us. We are thrilled to have you here, and I’m really looking forward to your leadership with NACUBO.
JIM MATTEO is vice president for finance and treasurer at Princeton University, and a member of the NACUBO Board of Directors.