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In Sickness and in Health

June 29, 2009
BOSTON – It may come as a surprise, but when you get a group of provosts and chief financial officers together, it sometimes feels like an episode of The Honeymooners. As a Sunday session at the annual meeting of the National Association of College and University Business Officers illustrated, the partnership of these two high-level administrators is at times more like a marriage than a traditional professional relationship.

Dishing about their partnerships, three pairs of provosts and CFO’s imparted sage advice about how they keep it together: “Communicate, communicate, communicate,” one said. “Don’t keep score,” another said. “Check your ego,” chimed in another.

The fact that a gathering of CFO’s and provosts feels a bit like marital counseling is no coincidence. To hear it from those who’ve been working at these relationships for years, personality is nearly as important as -- if not more important than -- policy.

“I would characterize our relationship as something we are working on all the time,” said Roy Austensen, provost at Valparaiso University.

Austensen’s chief financial officer is Charley Gillispie, vice president for finance and administration. Gillispie says the two invite each other to their own senior staff meetings,do they mean "meetings of each other's senior staffs"? as written, this seems like it would mean the university's senior staff, and presumably both would be going to that on their own. see what i mean? and try to build trust with campus stakeholders about how best to address the $15 million gap that exists between the university’s “desired expenses” and its current fiscal realities.

And then there are the jokes. In a break from stereotype, the trio of CFO/provost partners who presented at NACUBO proved quite the comedic combination. As Elon University CFO Gerald Whittington explained, he came to be called “Gerald” on campus -- not Gerry, as he’d been called for his entire life -- because his provost had the same first name.

“I gave up my identity for this man,” Whittington said with deadpan delivery. “And he never said ‘thank you.’ “

These little barbs between CFO’s and provosts may seem like insignificant banter -- a staple of conference fairsted "fair"... -- but the good spirited ribbing speaks to what each of the pairs described as an essential ingredient in their relationships: humor.

“This is the only way to survive in these jobs,” said Ronald Troyer, provost at Drake University. “You have to maintain your sense of humor.”

Obviously the next year won’t be sunshine and roses for CFO’s and provosts who must cut budgets. At most institutions, the two administrators will be at the crucible of difficult decisions that stand to shape their universities for years to come. But to hear it from Sunday’s presenters, the painful decisions can bring them closer. In nearly a decade of working together, Troyer says he’s often sought comfort from Victoria Payseur, his vice president for business and finance.

“You don’t know how many times I called Vicky to vent,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t call the president to vent -- or at least I didn’t think it was wise.”

As with many relationships, Troyer says he and Payseur have ground rules: Vent all you want about subordinates, but not about the president. The same goes for trustees: Don’t talk about them behind the president’s back, Troyer said.

If the three pairs of provosts and CFO’s on the panel Sunday have disagreements, they weren’t terribly open about them during their presentations. Asked where they might have clashed, Troyer only volunteered that he’d once pressured Payseur to buy new carpet for her office, even though she thought it might look bad politically. Not exactly fireworks, to be sure. On the other hand, many see the coming year as a particular challenge.

One solution to building a better partnership? Live together. Each of the provost/CFO pairs stressed that it was important to have offices near each other.

“Gerald’s office is across the hall,” said Gerry Francis, provost at Elon. “I can keep an eye on him, and I know where the money is.”

 

 

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