Two Hats, One Man

A small college has a business school dean who is also the CFO. Can it work?

December 19, 2013
John Misner, a CFO and business school dean at Piedmont College in Georgia
John Misner

Piedmont College’s business school dean and chief financial officer are one and the same: John Misner, a former investment banker who jokes that sleep is "an overrated commodity."

Misner is perhaps the only CFO/dean in the country. His is a “morph job” that came along in part because of Piedmont’s small size and his bosses' trust.

The dual role started gradually after Misner came to Piedmont as business dean in 2009. Former President Ray Cleere wanted a second set of eyes to look over banking documents and endowment-related finances.

Misner said Cleere’s approach was, “‘What the hell, why don’t you get the business dean over here to look at this for us?’”’

After Cleere retired, incoming President James Mellichamp, a longtime faculty member who was provost before he was president, decided to formalize the arrangement with Misner because of their good working relationship.

“It’s a fascinating model for those in academe, but it’s a common model in the corporate world: you have a number of units reporting to you and you stay engaged,” Misner said.

Only institutions of a certain size could even try to pull it off. Piedmont, a private college in Demorest, Ga., has about 2,400 students, 130 full-time faculty and about 100 adjuncts.

At other institutions, faculty and business officers -- who often come from different worlds -- have been at odds. Can dual roles mitigate the tension?

Misner still teaches, too, like other administrators at Piedmont, including Mellichamp. So, he said, he understands where faculty are coming from.

“In terms of the advantages, he certainly understands the big picture, and that helps him, I imagine, to work well as a dean,” said the Faculty Senate chairwoman, Viviane Daigle.

Patrick Sanaghan, a higher ed consultant who has worked with business officers, wonders if such an arrangement can really last.

“It would make me a little bit nervous on the longevity of this: two robust jobs and do them well?” he said. “There ain’t too many people who can pull that off.”

Misner is one of four vice presidents at Piedmont. His full title is executive vice president for institutional resources, so he not only handles the finances but also oversees facilities, human resources, security and athletics – in addition to being business school dean.

He said even if the campus grew, he could handle his duties.

“More students just adds more zeroes to the numbers I’m looking at, and as long as you add support staff, I’m fine,” Misner said.

Still, Piedmont has not had to deal with any of the woes facing some other small privates.

“No financial crisis here – I wouldn’t have time for that,” Misner joked.

Misner started his career in investment banking in Pittsburgh in the early-1980s, took a couple of adjunct instructor jobs, earned a Ph.D. from Kent State in 1999 and eventually was offered the deanship at Piedmont.

Part of what makes Misner's arrangement possible is an associate business school dean who handles day-to-day operations while Misner handles the whole college's finances. Misner at first kept two offices – separated only by a stairway and a driveway – but then gave up the one in the business school for one in the main administrative building.

Why not just hire a new business school dean?

Mellichamp said he wanted to keep Misner as dean because of long-term plans Misner started.

The president also prefers a horizontal management structure.

“In independent colleges such has Piedmont, there is already a well-established tradition for people to wear several hats,” he said. “That doesn’t mean people aren’t responsible and have supervisory roles that generally follow a more vertical structure, but in terms of the day-to-day operation of the institution, it’s that horizontal movement that keeps us excited about our work.”


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