With more than three decades of experience in higher education, Jeffrey J. West has a resume filled with contributions to the profession—as an instructor at workshops and seminars, a member of NACUBO and WACUBO committees, and an author of articles and publications. When asked why he chooses to volunteer for various groups, he hesitates for only a moment.
“Part of it is selfish, I suppose,” says West, the associate vice president, financial and business services, University of Utah, Salt Lake City. “To improve, I have to reach out and get exposure beyond my own limited world. By volunteering, I get to know people and learn how other institutions work. It makes me more well rounded.”
The other part, he says, is selfless. “I enjoy being part of something bigger than myself. I like the feeling of giving back. I have something to share that can help others. I support the missions of NACUBO and WACUBO, and believe that they make a difference in people’s lives. It’s noble work that we’re involved in.”
West is the recipient of the 2017 NACUBO Daniel D. Robinson Accounting Award for his continuous commitment to the advancement of college and university accounting and financial reporting. Business Officer interviewed West to discuss his extensive contributions, including chairing NACUBO’s Higher Education Accounting Forum program committee and twice serving on the Accounting Principles Council.
You oversee numerous areas, including accounting, reporting, financial analysis, tax, purchasing, federal compliance, travel, debt management, and process improvement. Which consumes more of your time?
I wouldn’t say that it’s any particular functional area. In the last several years, I’ve spent more time on process improvement. Higher education has been under scrutiny to become more efficient, to streamline, and to cut costs associated with the business side in order to funnel savings to mission-critical areas such as student services and support. It’s a direction I agree with and actively pursue.
Of course, the catch is that we’re trying to improve processes in a very decentralized environment where there is little appetite for mandating best practices in business transactions. We can certainly make our processes more efficient via good discipline and analysis, but if support is lacking for making those processes uniform throughout the organization, we end up allowing different paths to accomplish the work, or granting exceptions, or allowing special handling for certain departments. That’s really the rub.
To make process improvement stick, we need to be able to enforce standards in the way we do things, allowing for only rare exceptions.
What’s happening in the area of capital financing? Any challenges ahead?
That’s an interesting question. Ten to 20 years ago, online course development generated a lot of talk on campus. It still does. The difference: Back then, we had this notion that the movement might make a bricks-and-mortar student experience less common or obsolete. Some wondered whether capital construction might taper off or decline as a result.
Of course, the reality has been the opposite, at least at our institution. I’ve been at the University of Utah for almost 14 years, and I can’t remember a time when there weren’t construction projects going on. Financing most of these projects involves debt. To become more sophisticated, we’ve enhanced and refined our resources that oversee that whole area. Several years ago, I wrote our first debt policy, and we’ve developed a new treasury services function.
As far as the challenges ahead, I see two. In the not-too-distant future, we will come up against our debt capacity. We have almost $1 billion in debt right now. We’re bumping up against a threshold. The university is growing. Students are demanding modern facilities to live in and learn in. The question that we face is “Can we do it all?” The answer is probably “no.” We may have to look at other means of financing besides going into debt.
What’s the other challenge?
Marrying the strategic capital planning process with our development planning. We have generous donors who have their own ideas about where and how their donations should be used. It’s very difficult to decline a large donation when it really doesn’t fit with the university’s strategic priorities. I mean, who declines donations?
We need to coordinate the fundraising efforts at the early stages and partner with potential donors early on to jointly work out the areas of critical need.
How do you make your financial classes exciting?
Exciting is not a word normally associated with finance and accounting classes. Having said that, I do try to make my classes interesting and engaging, because nobody wants to sit through several hours of PowerPoint slides. I get that.
What usually works well for me is to get people talking to each other in some sort of a structured way. Sharing stories from campus is always a good way to get things started. It’s one thing to talk about theory and quite another to talk about the application. I like to pose a question or situation, and get people into small groups to share their perspectives and hash things out. Small group discussions can bring out nuances of a theme that often provide insight or perspective to the entire group.
What secrets can you share for communicating to your audience?
If there is any secret, I guess it is to be sincere, articulate, confident, and to respect the audience. I live by this: Take time to listen to what they are communicating back to you verbally and nonverbally, and be ready to adjust the message accordingly.
How do you prepare for the classes you teach?
It’s like preparing for any big event—there’s no substitute for study. I want to know well the subject that I’m teaching, including recent developments and current hot topics.
I’ll research current literature from the Governmental Accounting Standards Board (GASB), the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB), or the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, and talk to colleagues. I start early so that I have plenty of time for contemplation and revision, and I’m not doing it all at the last minute.
What’s a hot topic right now?
The fraud attempts that are bombarding our institutions. This is a major problem occurring mostly in procurements and payments. Our institutions post information online—probably too much—most of which is accessible to anybody who wants to look at it. This information is being used against us.
Fraudsters are impersonating us with our vendors or they are impersonating our vendors with us. It goes both ways. It’s a problem that is causing us to devote extra time and attention to fraud prevention. Double- and triple-checking everything slows down processing time. It’s counterintuitive to what we’re trying to accomplish with process improvement, which I mentioned earlier.
At WACUBO workshops, you teach Accounting and Reporting: Beyond the Basics. What strategies do you emphasize?
The GASB and FASB concept statements form the foundations for the whole course. The GASB has six of these statements; FASB has eight. Each organization approaches the world in a slightly different way. Because we have both private and public institutions in higher education, we pay attention to both in our workshops.
The GASB approaches concept statements from a stewardship and accountability perspective, drawing upon the fact that most of its constituency is state and local governments. The FASB, on the other hand, approaches them from a decision-making and information-driven perspective that is needed for resource providers to make good decisions. Once participants appreciate the “why” of accounting standards, they usually understand the “what” and “how” questions much more easily.
You lead a staff of 160 or thereabouts. What’s your management style, and how has it changed through the years?
Participatory. I try to lead by example. I work hard and expect others to do likewise. I try to surround myself with dedicated people who show initiative and passion. I listen. I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the room; I’m OK asking for suggestions and advice from other people.
My style hasn’t changed much through the years, although I’ve become more vocal with my direct reports when it comes to problem solving. In years past, I tried to solve everyone’s problems, trying to make everything right. Now I expect my direct reports to bring solutions, not just dump an issue in my lap.
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.