In 1984, I was fresh out of college and in need of a job. Even though I hadn’t planned on working in higher education, I found that job at Southern Arkansas University Tech (SAU Tech) in East Camden. Starting at an entry-level position and moving through numerous resignations, retirements, and promotions, I worked my way up the finance and administration department. Along the way, I came to understand that working in higher education means continually giving back and helping other people reach for their aspirations and meet their goals.
One of the first among just a handful of two-year schools in Arkansas, SAU Tech breaks the model of a typical community college in a couple of unique and interesting ways. Located in an industrial park in East Camden, the school was actually founded out of a need—which still exists to this day—to provide skilled technicians to the surrounding companies. In addition, there is also a fire academy and an environmental academy on campus. In conjunction with satellite campuses throughout Arkansas, we truly have a statewide mission.
At SAU Tech, what started as just a job became a career that has positively shaped me both professionally and personally, and advancing our mission from a leadership position has become one of my priorities. However, once I reached the position of controller, I realized I couldn’t take the next step to CBO without an advanced degree.
So, I took a leap of faith in order to help continue the mission of this unique institution for future generations. With the encouragement of school leaders, I started working on my MBA at night. Going back to school when I was almost 40 years old was somewhat intimidating. I doubted myself; would I be able to juggle my home, family, work, and education? But then that ambitious inner voice in me said “Heck yeah! You can do this!” It was an awesome experience that opened up many doors of opportunity for me, and within a month after graduating, I was promoted to CFO.
I’m still an accountant at heart, and there are some days I would be completely content working at my desk on budgets, spreadsheets, financial reports—just crunching the numbers. But one aspect of being at the level I am now that I find rewarding is working with other vice chancellors. We don’t just work together on campus initiatives and strategic planning; we work to keep each other uplifted and motivated. When I collaborate with the executive team to figure out solutions to problems the school is facing—like puzzling out ways the school could grow or maximizing training that the school provides to the surrounding industry—I know that I’m positively impacting not just the institution’s finances, but every department on campus.
Facing Resource Realities
Like many other two-year schools across the nation, one of the biggest challenges facing SAU Tech today is its substantial enrollment decline. This decline even reached the point of being so significant that we had to reduce the budget by approximately $1 million.
To help put this reduction in perspective, the SAU Tech budget is about $16 million, so this was a consequential cut. My thoughts became consumed with trying to figure out how we could possibly manage it. Trying to decide what got cut and what got funded, who stayed and who went, kept me up at night.
By collaborating across the organization, other campus leaders and myself strategically addressed difficult decisions, ultimately reducing certain budgets and suspending certain services until we could get the revenues aligned with our enrollment situation. We developed a new budgeting process that linked every budget request to the campus strategic plan. This prompted budget managers to be much more mindful of the enrollment decline and conservative in their requests.
We made a conscious decision not to fill vacant positions without careful assessment. Consequently, some positions remained unfilled. The school also entered into two sustainable energy projects that created utility savings throughout the campus. In the end, not one soul lost a position because of this budget reduction.
I imagine most of my colleagues in college and university business offices have similar worries about not having enough resources. We all want to continue providing services and adding enhancements to academic programs while making the decisions and investments that will grow our campuses and ensure our students are prepared for the future. Even though we’ve managed to right the ship, I still get concerned about having enough resources, including human resources. SAU Tech is subject to the same trend that is hitting a lot of campuses—retiring baby boomers. Many of the employees who are leaving have been working at the school for decades, and they are taking their vast stores of institutional knowledge with them. In addition, SAU Tech is sited in an area that doesn’t have a huge population, so finding the right person for the job can be difficult.
Turning Challenges Into Opportunities
I also see the challenge of finding new ways to bring resources to the campus as one of my biggest opportunities to help SAU Tech thrive into the future. For several years running, funding from the state has been flat. Combined with enrollment declines, this puts SAU Tech in a precarious position—leaders must be open to new perspectives and step outside of their comfort zones to help ensure the vitality of our institution.
At SAU Tech, we’ve made an impact on our budget by committing more time, energy—and money—to development. Because we are a small institution operating with a lean and agile staff, the school’s development efforts were continually relegated to the back burner. By hiring new development and alumni relations staff and making a concerted effort to build more relationships within the industrial park and throughout the state, we’ve formed more meaningful partnerships and seen contributions increase by thousands of dollars.
Another way we have increased revenue is through innovative program offerings. In 2011, we started what is now the Welding Academy of South Arkansas in one of our satellite locations. In the beginning it was just a one-day program, but so many more students wanted to apply than we had openings for that within three years the program actually tripled in size. Now, the academy offers both day and evening programs that provide an affordable option for advanced welding skills to Arkansans, as well as to our neighbors in surrounding states. Graduates of the academy can get started in their welding careers directly, or they can opt to continue their training by completing SAU Tech’s welding process specialist degree, which transfers to Southern Arkansas University’s welding engineering program.
We’re always looking for new ways to serve our surrounding population and industries. And when we get that right, we see positive impacts for our community and for the school.
I have had a plethora of mentors, supporters, and encouragers, including most of the chancellors I’ve worked with. Many of my greatest mentors have been fellow volunteers who I built relationships with through our work with my state business officer association, our regional association, and NACUBO.
David Bosserman—former SACUBO president, 2002–2003—had a lot of confidence in me and encouraged me to put myself out there. He helped me believe in myself; he believed that I could accomplish even more than I thought possible.
Now I’m in a position to mentor rising business officers in the state. I enrolled in the Arkansas Leadership Institute, which caters to rising directors and coordinators employed at different state colleges and universities. Even though I was already at the CFO level, I really wanted to get engaged with this leadership program. Once I got into the program, I realized that I could actually assist a lot of these younger folks with their careers, especially those who aspired to the chief business officer position. It has been so rewarding to help these individuals as they work to advance themselves professionally.
A career in higher education means continually giving back, helping others reach their goals and aspire to even higher heights. One of the greatest compliments any person can receive, regardless of profession, is when someone tells you about the positive difference you’ve made. In higher education, whether you’re part of the academic side, faculty, staff, or administration, that’s what our work is about—making a positive difference in the lives of all of these students as they strive for success. It really is a grand profession.
GAYE MANNING is vice chancellor for finance and administration at Southern Arkansas University Tech, East Camden. She was the 2007–2008 NACUBO board chair.