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Getting to Know the CFO

July 27, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO – The ever-growing population of college chief financial officers is dominated by well-educated, middle-aged white men who clash with deans and never feel they have enough money for their institutions, according to a survey released today by the National Association of College and University Business Officers (NACUBO).

NACUBO’s 2010 Profile of Higher Education Chief Business and Financial Officers provides a window into the make-up of university officials who have become increasingly influential in the administrative ranks. The typical CFO is 55 years old, married with children and most commonly – 48 percent – holds an M.B.A. Respondents were 90 percent white, and two-thirds were men.

"We are basically a white profession," said Lucie Lapovsky, principal at Lapovsky Consulting and a former CFO who went on to become president of Mercy College.

The survey, which drew upon 974 responses or 32 percent of those polled, revealed that CFOs are generally happy in their jobs. Of those surveyed, 90 percent said they were at least satisfied in their current positions. But the pressures of the job are also manifest in the data. Asked for their two chief sources of frustration, about 43 percent selected “never having enough money.” The second most common frustration CFOs share is the "belief by others that you are infinitely accessible." Moreover, about one-third cited relationships with deans – often the chief advocates for a greater share of resources – as their most troubling.

“They’re trying to balance the interests of a lot of different departments on campus,” said Kenneth Redd, director of research and policy analysis at NACUBO. “That does lead to tension; there’s no doubt about it. That’s clearly what our survey suggests.”

The final responses to the survey were submitted in mid-February. Nearly half of the participants hold positions at small institutions – primarily four-year private colleges with enrollments below 4,000. The survey also captured some CFOs at community colleges, where CFOs are more likely to be women. Just 21 percent of chief business officers at comprehensive universities are women, compared with 42 percent at community colleges. Overall, 32 percent of CFOs are women – still a higher proportion than is the case at Fortune 500 companies, where just 12 percent of CFOs are women.

Annette Parker, vice president and treasurer at Dickinson College, said she’s never had the sense that CFO jobs were closed off to women.

“I have personally never felt there was a glass ceiling in higher education,” said Parker, who participated in the survey. “I think there have been a lot of opportunities for me. I find higher education very open, and there are a lot of women who move into positions of responsibility in higher education finance.”

Parker took a somewhat circuitous path to becoming a CFO. She graduated from Dickinson in 1973 with a major in art and art history. She then worked on a family farm with her husband – a period she describes as marked by “Birkenstocks and peasant skirts.” But Parker later cut her teeth in finance as many CFOs do: she went on to get an M.B.A. in accounting, and – like 15 percent of CFOs – worked in government finance for a time. She also has some experience as a faculty member, having taught accounting at Wilson College.

Like 33 percent of her counterparts, Parker was a controller before moving into her current role. While 38 percent have been in their current positions for fewer than four years, Parker took on her current role in an interim capacity in 1998 and became the permanent CFO the following year.

“I know this place; I grew up here, and because I really believe in the mission being focused on the academic experience, the dean, the provost and I get along beautifully,” she said.

Relationships between CFOs and provosts are critical, Lapovsky told attendees of NACUBO's annual meeting Monday.

"When it's working well, it can be wonderful," she said. "And when it's not, it's a real problem."

Parker’s long history in higher education is not uncommon for CFOs, despite stereotypes that suggest many are number crunchers with little facility in the ways of academe. Indeed, 60 percent have spent half their careers in higher education.

For the most part, CFOs also feel adequately compensated. Only about one quarter say they need a higher salary. While the survey does not report average salaries, a 2007 study conducted by the Witt/Kieffer search firm found that fewer than half earn more than $150,000. The most recent data from the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources indicated that CFO median salaries are $187,160 at doctoral institutions, $130,000 at master's institutions, $113,925 at baccalaureate institutions, and $106,759 at community colleges.

While only 17 percent of CFOs surveyed by NACUBO expressed frustration with faculty, those relationships take work. So says Bob Keasler, the senior vice president for operations and finance at Wofford College, who sees faculty relations as a key part of his job.

“I’m not sure that [most] CFOs take the time to meet and talk to a lot of faculty,” he said. “I’ve done this for 20 years or more. I eat lunch where the faculty eat lunch, and I sit with faculty, and I do that so they can ask me questions.”

Keasler was a zoology major with a chemistry minor before trying his hand at a small business that didn't work out. He then earned a master’s degree in accounting, and – like 38 percent of CFOs – he now holds a certified public accountant credential. Keasler said his career in higher education was natural, since he still enjoys talking shop with professors in areas as diverse as economics and literature.

“I told my wife my dream job would be to have someone pay me to go to college,” he said.

It’s not all so grand, he concedes. As resources diminish, the CFO is often the purveyor of bad news.

“The tough part for us is we have to be the people willing to say no,” Keasler said.

As the survey suggests, deans are the administrators who are often on the receiving end of that tough news. But that’s as it should be, Keasler said.

“It’s a dean’s job to lobby for his area, and that’s one of the things I tell new people in this business is to expect that and to be glad when you have a dean who’s passionate about what they do and passionate about their programs,” he said. “If you don’t have one like that, then worry. They might not be much trouble, but that’s not a good sign.”

 

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