Collaboration Between the Chiefs

Joint meeting of small college academic and business officers aims to help institutions' key leaders get on the same page.
November 8, 2010

WILLIAMSBURG, VA. -- Two by two they strolled through the hallways, or sat immersed in discussion over breakfast or between sessions. For some of the pairs of provosts and financial administrators who attended the Council of Independent Colleges' joint meeting here of chief academic and business officers, the time together was "more face time than we've had in a while," as Cheryl B. Torsney, vice president and dean of the college at Ohio's Hiram College, put it.

"We need to work together, but on campus, he's busy and I'm busy," Torsney added, referring to Stephen W. Jones, Hiram's vice president for business and finance. "Coming here, the time on the plane, the time at meals, the interaction we have in responding to what we're listening to -- working well together requires a good relationship, and a meeting like this is all about relationship building."

The idea of bringing provosts and business officers together isn't brand-new for CIC, which represents about 600 small and midsized independent colleges; it has held joint meetings for the two groups twice previously, in 2004 and 2007. (This year's meeting is co-hosted by the National Association of College and University Business Officers.) But Richard Ekman, the council's president, said that such a gathering is more necessary than ever, given the economic turmoil in which colleges like his members find themselves now -- and which they are likely to face for the foreseeable future.

"In times of economic uncertainty and tight budgets it is essential that chief academic officers and chief financial officers work together to strengthen their institutions and to maximize opportunities for students to pursue their degree programs and graduate in a timely manner," CIC said in a publication describing the joint meeting. "Learning to value each other’s perspective on campus priorities and to understand each other’s approach to resource allocation depends on clear and frequent communication between the CAO and the CFO."

Ekman wrote to the presidents of CIC colleges this summer urging them to send teams to this week's meeting, and the response suggests that the colleges themselves recognize the heightened stakes in having their top academic and financial officers work well together: 182 business officers (and 298 academic officers) are here for this year's institute, up from 106 (and 266) in 2007. That's despite the fact that many CIC members (like other colleges) are facing travel and other budget restrictions.

While some of the attendees said the joint meeting gave them a rare opportunity to spend significant time together, others said their structures ensured close collaboration between the chief business and academic officers. Petra Carver and Mark Smith, the vice presidents for finance and administration and for academic affairs, respectively, at the College of Idaho, said they couldn't operate independently if they wanted to -- they work in adjoining offices and share an assistant.

But "I always want to spend time with the CAO," Carver said, and despite their close cooperation on the campus, the opportunity to hear about the work their peers at other colleges are doing "provides an opportunity to have conversations about things that we might not normally talk about," Smith said.

The cross-pollination between the business and academic sides of the academic house made for some interesting, honest -- and often humorous -- exchanges. At an "open mic" session at which both business and academic officers were encouraged to talk about what's on their minds, one CFO asked the CAOs in the room for advice. "I have difficulty getting the academic side of the house to really buy into a budget process," he said, to widespread laughter -- evidence, presumably, of widespread recognition on the part of the other CFOs in the room, and perhaps self-recognition on the part of some academic officers.

Rita Knuesel, the provost at the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University, and Susan Palmer, the vice president for finance and administration at Saint Benedict, seemed a model for the type of collaboration that the CIC meeting hopes to foster. "We use each other as a sounding board all the time," Palmer said -- a sentiment Knuesel echoed.

But lest the world appear too rose-colored when it comes to the potential for the business and academic sides of the house to join arms and sing Kumbaya, consider this response from one female provost when asked by a reporter if her CFO had joined her in Williamsburg.

"No," she sniffed. "He thinks he knows everything already."


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