Married to an attorney, C. Aaron LeMay likes to joke that he went to law school to have a chance at winning an argument every now and then. “The truth of the matter—it just prolongs the inevitable loss,” says the senior associate controller, University of North Texas (UNT) System, Dallas.
Getting serious, LeMay explains the real reason he pursued a legal degree: “I was looking for a doctorate degree that focused on higher education, but it became evident how much the regulations are increasing. My thought process: Since I wanted to stay in higher education, the best way to do that administratively was to obtain a doctorate of jurisprudence. While I don’t make legal interpretations for the university, I do have to ensure that our policies and procedures remain compliant with the laws and regulations. My legal background also helps with contract negotiations and working closely with our general counsel.”
The two attorneys have a daughter, Phoebe, who LeMay describes as “an independent spirit who, in the third grade, all but runs the house.”
How did you end up at the University of North Texas System?
I was recruited, as part of a financial transformation that started in 2014, to be the controller representative for UNT, the flagship of the system. Previously, I was the associate vice president for financial services and controller at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
UNT System has implemented a new model of unified controllership by bringing the bursar, general accounting, and financial reporting offices for all of the components of the system into the system office.
What are the components, and what is the goal of combining all four?
The University of North Texas in Denton, UNT Health Science Center in Fort Worth, and UNT Dallas, are the three educational institutions. The UNT System Administration is the fourth component. The goal of the unified model is to bring consistency to accounting and financial reporting, and accuracy when creating reports and developing information for business decisions.
What is your role?
I’m the traditional controller for the University of North Texas. In addition to my work at the system office, I meet regularly to support Bob Brown, vice president for finance and administration at UNT. As part of his administrative leadership team, I work closely with the research office and the budget office to make sure that we are aligning our financial needs with their respective operations.
What services are the institutions now sharing?
The operation for the controllership consists of payroll, accounts payable, travel, student accounting, cashiering, general accounting, and financial reporting. In addition, outside of the controller’s area, we have shared services for information technology, human resources, procurement, treasury, and some of our business service operations.
How is it working?
We, of course, have learning issues, working out the needs of the different campuses. I’m not going to say that there are no hiccups, but I believe we are moving toward a more efficient model in higher education.
Explain the hiccups—or challenges—that you’ve encountered.
I’ll give you an example. An individual institution can make a call about how to account for a certain transaction. However, because we represent the interests of four components with different missions and needs, we have to make sure that all the controllers and CFOs in the components understand and agree with a decision, because it becomes the basis of how we do the work at each institution.
Although coordinating the effort can be time-consuming initially, we hope the result will present a consistent financial approach.
When we create a new report, it is for four institutions, not one. Before, each institution had to create its own reports. Now we can create one, and it’s done for all institutions.
For example, we’re currently building our annual financial report, which will be available for the other three components. It’s easier because we can work off of the same basic information.
What mistakes are institutions making in the area of shared services?
Wow, that’s a loaded question.
I think one area that is ripe for mistakes is communication and customer service. I link the two together because you can do a great job, but unless you have good communication channels, your work could be viewed negatively no matter how good the service. Representatives on both sides need to regularly and openly discuss the operations at hand.
This model, which is still in its infancy, also requires a high use of technology. If you don’t invest in the technical resources, all you do is change one manual operation to another location.
I can see from your previous speaking engagements that you are interested in student debt. What’s your take on the current situation?
Unfortunately, it’s out of control. The availability of student loans has kept some university operations wide open to additions, for example, recreation centers, student money management centers, and student unions. Even though I have a degree in student affairs and believe these operations are essential, I also must admit that student debt allows us to layer in services that are important today, but these services didn’t exist 30 years ago. I think student loans are a major contributing factor to the hyper-expansion of higher education enrollment and services.
How can student debt be reduced? These facilities already exist. You can’t tear down the student union.
That’s the trillion-dollar question. We’ve helped keep demand for higher education high by supplying cash to students. To name a couple possible solutions, we have to take a hard look at how we use technology to enhance classroom experiences, and we may need to figure out a way to hold institutions accountable for the quality of their education. If a large number of students from an institution are defaulting on their loans, should that institution be held partially accountable? That needs to be discussed in an open dialogue.
I don’t have all the answers, but we have to consider these difficult questions. Student debt, coupled with the default rate, is not sustainable.
How do you unwind from the pressures of the job?
Running. I’m a big guy. When I graduated from law school, I had put on a considerable amount of weight from sitting around and doing nothing but studying after work. After I got my first job, I decided to become more active. Rachel told me I couldn’t do triathlons because she was doing triathlons, so I had to pick something else.
Is there a bit of friendly competition between the two of you?
Let’s just say that we don’t play Monopoly in our house anymore. The last time we played, more than 10 years ago, we didn’t talk to each other for a week.
Anyway, on a whim, I signed up for my first marathon. Once I paid the fee, I realized, “I can’t waste that money.” I had to figure out how to do a marathon. Since then, I’ve done four, including the New York City Marathon last year.
Did you run the whole way?
You can walk. My time was nothing to write home about, but running is one of the ways that I relax and let go of stress. My typical run after work is five to six miles.
What personal challenges have you overcome?
In my junior year of high school, my guidance counselor basically told me that I couldn’t make it into college. The reason: I was not in the top 10 percent of the graduating class. Once I found out that you actually have to care about your grades to make it into college, I applied myself and got into the top 10 percent and have not left college since.
MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.