Successful business officers share certain characteristics, including integrity, decisiveness, and creativity “because sometimes we need to think outside the box,” says Christina A. Rickert, director of financial operations and controller, University of Wisconsin (UW)–Stevens Point. “Another necessary characteristic is endurance, because being a successful business officer takes a lot of work.”
Rickert, who started as a financial program manager II at UW–La Crosse, moved in 2016 to UW–Stevens Point, where she has helped develop a framework for a strategic investment fund, implemented a cash-handling program, revised the campus internal controls plan, and chaired a committee charged with integrating two-year branch campuses as part of the restructuring of UW colleges.
Talk about the strategic investments fund and your role in this effort.
I chaired the team that developed the fund and its framework. It is a new pot of money earmarked for strategic investments.
My team identified different revenue sources across campus that we could use as investment dollars and established criteria to evaluate proposals to use the funds. When individuals on campus make requests for those dollars, a committee evaluates their requests based on how each request aligns with the strategic plan initiatives that focus on enrollment growth, new programs, or administrative efficiencies.
Can you explain how UW is restructuring its colleges and why the change is being made?
Until recently, the UW System had 13 two-year college campuses and 13 four-year institutions across the state. Effective July 1, 2018, the UW Board of Regents approved integrating the two-year college campuses into seven of the four-year institutions. For example, UW–Marathon County and UW–Marshfield/Wood County, which are two-year colleges, are being integrated into UW–Stevens Point—a four-year institution.
The University of Wisconsin wants to (1) sustain the viability of the college campuses while maintaining a presence in local communities, (2) ensure that students on two-year campuses have a pathway and access to the four-year institutions, and (3) further standardize administrative operations and services.
For now, at the branch campuses, tuition will remain the same for the associate degree programs.
How has this affected your department?
It has affected us greatly. We’re working on combining the student information systems, developing a way to manage joint payment and purchasing processing, and figuring out how to handle journals. The new UW–Stevens Point at Wausau and Marshfield campuses are 30 to 45 minutes away from the main campus, so automation is key in order to pay invoices, collect student tuition, and handle basic everyday processes.
The period between July 1, 2018 and June 30, 2019, has been designated as a transition period so that we can move resources and get the necessary systems and programs in place.
What changes have you made to the campus internal controls plan and the cash-handling program?
When I came to UW–Stevens Point, the campus internal controls plan was a matrix. To enhance our internal controls, I added an actual plan that included campus risk assessment, monitoring, and communication.
Before making any changes to the cash-handling program, I brought a team together; communication is critical when proposing a campuswide change. Our team developed a policy, training, and certification program. Now, people receive training on how to properly handle cash and secure it, and how often to make a deposit.
Explain how the training program works.
We have an online training program that has been quite successful. People handling cash on our campus must be certified, and their certification has to be renewed annually to make sure that they stay up-to-date on the latest federal and state regulations, as well as institutional policies and procedures.
You also developed the policy for tuition appeals. Tell us about that process.
We didn’t have a written policy, only a practice based on prior committee decisions, so I researched what other institutions were doing and gave the results to our tuition appeals committee. We took the best practices that we felt would be appropriate for central Wisconsin and our students.
From there, we established a deadline for when we would accept a tuition appeal after the end of a semester. We implemented an option to offer a partial reimbursement of tuition based on how much a student uses campus services. Previously, it was either zero or 100 percent. We decided that if students were here for two weeks, they would pay for those two weeks.
We also implemented the option of giving students tuition credit, rather than a cash refund, if they intended to come back in the future.
What are common student appeals and who makes up the appeals committee?
Many appeals are medically related. Sometimes students think they have withdrawn from classes but don’t complete all the paperwork and submit it to the registrar’s office.
Our tuition appeals committee comprises people from different areas of the campus. They review the information and documentation and the reason for the appeal. Based on the information presented, they decide whether the student has provided enough information to obtain an exception to the standard refund schedule.
What’s the most important professional lesson that you have learned?
Early in my career, I had a manager who taught me to manage situations and relationships tactfully. I try each day to remember that advice.
You supervise four direct reports and a 22-person department. What’s your management style?
I like to be collaborative. I believe the best way to operationalize plans or implement new efficiencies is to bring others into the decision-making process. That way, my staff adopts the plan and gets excited about communicating and carrying it out.
Talk about your family.
My husband, Jeremy, and I just celebrated 15 years of marriage. We have a son, Lucas, who is 12 years old, and a daughter, Delaney, who is 10.
How do you spend your time away from work?
I’m trying to learn about landscaping. When we moved to Stevens Point, our new house came with a lot of landscaping. I don’t have a green thumb, so I’m trying to learn all the plants in our yard. I recently cut something that I’m pretty sure I wasn’t supposed to. Now I’m wondering if the plant will grow back.
My favorite pastime is reading different genres. I read anything and everything.
Other than a university business officer, what career did you dream of pursuing?
Before I decided to pursue business and accounting, I planned to go into the medical field to be a doctor.
Tell us something about yourself that your peers may not know.
I’m pretty talkative, so there isn’t a lot that people don’t already know.
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.