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Perpetual Curiosity

November 2018

By Margo Vanover Porter

Credit: EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY OF NORTH AMERICA CORP. (EPNAC)

The more things change, the more they inspire Gerald O. Whittington, recipient of NACUBO’s 2018 Distinguished Business Officer Award, to figure out the what, the why, and the how to make it all work better.

Gerald O. Whittington freely admits that he has at least one character flaw. “I am easily bored,” says the senior vice president, business, finance and technology, Elon University, N.C. “I love my job because I’m naturally inquisitive and want to know how things work. Coming through my door every hour is a different challenge, which is like red meat to me.”

Business Officer recently interviewed Whittington, who received NACUBO’s 2018 Distinguished Business Officer Award, to find out more about his 46-year career in higher education.

You joined Elon University in January 1992. What has made you stay?

I have never lacked for a new and exciting challenge here. In fact, about every five years, I would wake up and feel that I was working for a different institution because of Elon’s growth and increasing complexity. I never thought, “Well, I’ve done all that I can do here. Let’s go somewhere else. I didn’t need to.”

Gerald L. Francis, the former provost at Elon, once described you as “a CFO as interested in academics as he is in budgets and buildings.” What are your thoughts on this?

As part of my psychological makeup, I’m very curious. Delving into the academic process has helped me have a complete understanding of the university, and the yin and yang of it. I’ve had the good fortune here to teach finance in the school of business and in the master of arts in higher education program. The experience helps me understand the life of a faculty member, the stresses and strains, and the need to articulate information in multiple ways.

This spring, I am teaching university finance and budget in the master of arts in higher education program. Education has enriched my life. Being able to support higher education is a labor of love, and I’m paying it back. Since the subject matter is right in my wheelhouse, why wouldn’t I teach?

Elon’s leadership team has the ability to work harmoniously together. How are the campus leaders able to do that?

Our institution’s culture is to plan. We develop strategic plans for the institution, we execute them, and we execute them extraordinarily well. During the development of a strategic plan, we ensure that everyone understands the initiatives and what they mean. Then we develop budgets that support the initiatives.

By the end of the strategic plan’s development, we are all committed to its success. The chief academic officer and I really don’t have disagreements over resource allocations, because our question is always, “Well, what does the strategic plan call for this year in the development of this budget?” There are no fistfights. We pull the rope in the same direction for the betterment of the institution.

You’ve mentored staff members who have gone on to become successful CBOs. How do you handle losing that talent?

I ask myself this question: Would I rather have colleagues working at my institution who are absolutely extraordinary and keep them for 10 years, or have people who are pretty good and keep them for 25 years? I would rather have the former.

You lead business and finance, facilities management, sustainability, construction, administrative services, technology, auxiliary services, campus safety, police, and internal audit. How much time do you spend on CFO responsibilities?

I still spend a good deal of time on finances because every private institution that doesn’t have a gigantic endowment is keenly aware of its tuition dependency. A significant mistake in resource allocation can sink the institution, putting it in a position where it can’t crawl out of the hole. It may survive, limping along, but the ability to provide the best quality education for students can be irreparably harmed.

I spend a lot of time thinking about the viability of our economic model, what we’re doing in fundraising and endowment management, and how we make budget decisions.

When you have a controversial issue to address with your board of trustees, how do you prepare and present it?

Our mantra here is communicate, communicate, communicate, which keeps surprises from being a surprise. We do a lot of forward thinking. Contingency planning in terms of risk management is important.

What challenge should institutions be preparing for in the next decade?

On one hand, some people are saying, “The end is near. Higher education is in a downward spiral. It costs too much. It isn’t worth the expense. Woe is me.” Because those people are being heard, the challenge for higher education is to be able to cogently, clearly, and repeatedly rebut those sentiments. Higher education is worth it. Yes, it is expensive, but it is a responsibility that should not be shorn from state legislatures.

Quite frankly, I don’t think that we’ve done a good job rebutting the naysayers. One of the reasons is that as an industry we are shocked to find people questioning the value of higher education. We must get over this naivete and get over it quickly.

Talk about a turning point in your life that helped get you where you are today.

The most seminal moment in my life occurred in 1968 when I was a college freshman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January 1969, I got a letter from the financial aid office saying, “Dear Former Scholarship Holder: We neglected to tell you that the money we gave you for your scholarship was supported by soft federal dollars that have now been taken away.”

I first went to see my resident assistant, and then worked my way up to the financial aid office, which couldn’t help. I ended up sitting across the desk from the CFO. It was the ’60s, and I was full of righteous indignation and altruism. I gave the CFO an impassioned speech about the leaders of tomorrow being squashed and ended with a thunderous plea—I can hear myself now and wince—asking him, “What are you going to do about it?”

He looked me dead in the eye and said, “I have no idea.”

I immediately thought, with the conceit of youth, “I can do a better job than that.” I found out what it took to be a CFO, and I fashioned my undergraduate career after all of the things that CFOs of the day did not do well. That moment changed my career.

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

 

Credit: EVENT PHOTOGRAPHY OF NORTH AMERICA CORP. (EPNAC)

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