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July 28, 2023 | Long-range financial planning

How Finance Leaders are Evolving Their Role in Higher Ed

As higher education continues to move into a previously unexplored landscape, professionals and institutions find themselves at a crossroads where previous experiences and new technologies and insights intersect. While colleges and universities have met with adversities countless times over the decades, the current combination of economic volatility on the tail-end of the pandemic shutdown, the coming enrollment cliff , and the cutoff of imperative government funding such as HEERF leave institutions in a particularly perilous position—but also one of tremendous opportunity.
While this may be an unprecedented set of circumstances, it is critical that institutions operate proactively to prepare for this new reality. This process is already underway by many colleges and universities. As part of HelioCampus’s commitment to serving as a catalyst for informed action, we’ve recently interviewed a number of chief financial officers (CFOs) and finance leaders in higher education to glean valuable themes and takeaways they have for colleagues. We hope these thoughtful insights from industry leaders help inform initiatives at your own institution. 


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A Roadmap to Becoming Data-Informed

Sheri Stoll, Chief Financial Officer and Vice President, Finance and Administration, Bowling Green State University — Stoll has served in her current role at Bowling Green State University since 2007, when she first joined the institution. During her tenure, Stoll has overseen business operations, the controller’s office, human resources, budget and resource planning, information technology services, capital planning, design, and construction, public safety, and internal audit and advisory services.

TIP: Use adversity as a catalyst for change

Bowling Green State University, just like every other institution in the U.S., found itself facing a massive dilemma as the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown took effect in 2020. In addition to all the immediate regulations and decisions which needed to be put in place to ensure student, faculty, and staff safety, the institution was also told, informally, to expect a significant reduction in state support for the upcoming year.


Not only was this extraordinarily difficult news, but the timing came just before the end of one fiscal year and start of another—meaning all the budgets which had been completed were suddenly obsolete. Additionally, BGSU’s state budget was being cut between the start of the shutdown (March) and the end of the fiscal year (June 30). As it turned out, the reduction from the state for the following year was avoided; however, it was the overall impact to enrollment from the pandemic that ended up causing the overall budget to require those planned reductions.


While this experience was born out of difficulty and unexpected pivots, it also provided Stoll and BGSU with a unique opportunity to lean more heavily into robust data to unearth a pathway to fiscal balance. Stoll and her team used adversity as a catalyst for change and discovered a path forward to more actionable insights and results—one which can hopefully continue to provide steps toward continued success for the institution in the years to come.  “We’ve just got probably 3-4 years worth of data really clean” by bringing their financials into a data warehouse. “Even I can work with it,” says Stoll. 

TIP: Strategically launch new initiatives

Recognizing that they are in the early stages of leveraging the data for actionable insights, Stoll adds, “Our goals are to develop an approach for how we want to roll this out, to whom we want to make it available, [and] how we envision it being […] used.” Stoll and her team acknowledge the importance of being strategic in launching a new initiative.


Stoll identifies a combination of different technology tools, the capable individuals in her IT group, and the consultant she hired on as vital elements of BGSU’s transition into deeper analytical exploration.


At this stage, the institution is more data-informed rather than data-driven, and Stoll also clarifies “[Our data] shines a flashlight, but it doesn’t tell you, ‘Okay, you need to go do this.’” The team is being very intentional in setting realistic expectations and timelines for ushering in this new era for the institution.

Stakeholder Partnership Management

Ken Kaiser, Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer, Temple University — Kaiser has served Temple University’s data needs for nearly 30 years. In that span, he has been responsible for budget, human resources, treasury and investment, bursar, controller operations, risk management and insurance, facilities and operations, sustainability, business services, and mission continuity planning—and is also a proud alumnus.

TIP: Make data visual, accessible, and actionable

Kaiser has seen Temple University’s approach to data and analytics advance tremendously during his tenure. He recalls their first ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) tool which provided their initial standards around data, transitioning from a period where, Kaiser notes, “before that, everyone had their excel spreadsheets mostly and the integrity of data was always in question.”


Of particular focus these days for Kaiser and his team is the ability to balance net tuition revenue with enrollment challenges. Kaiser states, “That's really what keeps me up at night...that's what drives the budget. We have to make sure that everyone understands the challenges we face and the decisions we have to make as a result of them. It's not business as usual...People want to see data."


As Kaiser recognizes the value and importance of buy-in from key stakeholders, he also has learned the importance of making data visual, accessible, and actionable. “We will take the enrollment data and 'visualize' it. We boil it down to 2-3 charts that you can't help but get the takeaway. Data in and of itself isn't useful for a lot of people. You need to give them some tools to translate it into something that most people are even willing to look at...We have to get them to understand, 'oh, I guess this is real.' 


We know where we have to go; it's about making people feel like they were part of the journey to get there. Translating the data into visuals that you can immediately look at - you don't even need someone to explain it to you - are key in doing that."

TIP: Intentionally disseminate information to key stakeholders

Buy-in is crucial to Kaiser’s ability to effectively navigate the institution’s needs and to traverse difficult choices that will ultimately benefit the university’s health. “In the end, I think it’s all about relationships,” Kaiser says. “Make sure that when you’re presenting to [leadership], there’s no surprises.” As such, intentionally disseminating information to key stakeholders is pivotal to Kaiser’s process. 


He suggests that small meetings are always better, even if some of those are one-on-ones. These smaller settings allow for answering direct questions in a truly frank manner. This, in contrast to a townhall-style meeting which could “devolve into chaos”, allows for effectively managing the understanding of the data and then allowing those individuals to go out and do the same among their colleagues. Ultimately, cultivating reliable data and breaking it down into actionable insights with relevant stakeholders, allows Kaiser and Temple University to inform and enlist campus stakeholders, yielding more positive adoption and buy-in.


“You’re never going to get everyone on board when you have to make a difficult or unpopular decision,” Kaiser says. “You need to get some key people…the champions…and they need to go out into the community and socialize it a little bit for you.”

Financial Sustainability via Institutional Agility

Dr. David Creamer, Senior Vice President for Finance and Business Services & Treasurer, Miami University — Dr. Creamer has been with Miami University since 2008, initially serving as Vice President for Finance and Business Services and Treasurer of the University. In 2014, he was promoted to the designation of Senior Vice President. In his tenure with the institution, Dr. Creamer has overseen the university’s finance, public safety, human resources, and facility operations.

TIP: Prioritize agility over historically rigid systems

Dr. Creamer currently sees a higher ed marketplace which will be continually changing and evolving in the near future. “To remain competitive, you have to deliver quality outcomes, but more cost-effectively. So, how do you find those answers?” Creamer says. “How do you know you’re achieving what you could achieve? You don’t want to shrink something to the point it’s ineffective even if there’s cost savings.”  Those who attempt to “ride out” ten year strategic plans and similar dated strategies will succumb to the tightening of the industry. Because of this, Dr. Creamer encourages prioritizing agility over historically rigid systems.


An example of Dr. Creamer and Miami University’s efforts to pivot more quickly was the abandoning of their historic ERP. “​​The complexity of what we were doing seemed to constantly grow. Every time we would add something to solve a problem, the complexity of the integration always seemed to fall short of our goals. 


“We had so many systems trying to be hooked together, it just wasn't a very efficient system. From an administrative efficiency point of view there are problems, and even from a data approach, you still had to build additional databases to get at the data that you need...We believe a simpler environment to build and retrieve data will definitely help us see some administrative gains.”

TIP: Simplify systems and eliminate data silos

While in the early stages, the goal for Dr. Creamer and his team is to establish a simpler environment for building and retrieving data. Additionally, the hope is that non-financial data, such as student success information, will be integrated in a more straightforward fashion.


As part of system simplification, Dr. Creamer intends to continue to eliminate data silos. He suggests as an example, given that the University operates with a RCM model, the role between student success and finance data—two areas which may not be interconnected on many campuses. Dr. Creamer points out the two are “much more data-dependent as you’re trying to understand the performance of academic units clear down at the major/departmental level. You need good data integration, both over on the academic student/faculty side, as well as the financial data that can accompany that.”


Dr. Creamer and his team are continuing to connect the previously hidden dots across campus in order to eradicate data silos, simplify their systems, and remain flexible to the continually shifting higher education landscape. "The working relationships you get established - that's the key,” Creamer says. “It's whether there's collaboration and agreement on what you're trying to do."

Want more insights on how higher ed leaders are tackling today's biggest challenges and working to secure financial sustainability for their institutions? Check out our eBook, Financial Sustainability in Higher Education: Challenges and Solutions—available now!

Illustration of a man sitting on top of a coin, with a laptop, thinking. The text reads "Be the financial steward your institution needs - access the eBook".

As part of HelioCampus’s ongoing commitment to thought leadership in higher education, we will continue to update this blog post with additional insights from industry experts, so we invite you to bookmark this page and stay tuned for future contributions.


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