Throughout the 20-plus years of my work in higher education, my desire to make a lasting contribution has driven my commitment to this field. As senior vice chancellor for finance, operations, and strategic planning at my alma mater, the University of Massachusetts Lowell, making that contribution means staying focused on the institution’s strategic plan and requires teamwork, courage, and persistence every moment of the day. To maintain balance between life and work, I pursue personal interests, such as travel and scuba diving, and I run to help keep my stress down. Engaging in a wide variety of experiences, both professional and personal, has helped me better serve the business office, the university, and the community.
I had been working in corporate America for many years when, in the mid-1990s, I decided to make a change. At the time I was working at a multimedia conglomerate, and I had begun to find its objective of making increasingly more money and the subsequent short-term planning cycle—focused on the next merger and the next opportunity to liquidate shares—physically and spiritually exhausting.
I mentioned my interest in finding a new position to a colleague of mine who connected me to a search firm for Bentley University, Waltham, Mass. Bentley was looking for a new chief financial officer, and as a business school it appreciated that I was a CPA with nonprofit experience who could bring corporate expertise to the table.
For my part, I was attracted to the mission of higher education and its long-term view for strategic planning. I saw the invitation to work at Bentley as an opportunity to give back instead of just making shareholders wealthy. After working at Bentley, and later as CFO for the University of Maine System, UMass Lowell reached out to me about its open CFO position. I couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to be invited to return to and serve my alma mater.
Tenets of Leadership
The experiences I had in corporate America have contributed significantly to my success in higher education. Much like corporations, higher ed has been coming to terms with its own need to be more efficient in its operations, including in the business office. CBOs need to be more responsible with how we manage our costs and charges in order to better manage the bottom line. The insights and skills I learned in corporate America about operational efficiencies have helped me manage shrinking budgets and keep tuition from skyrocketing. I definitely recommend that aspiring CBOs spend some time working in the private sector. By diversifying your professional experiences, you can reinvigorate your perspective and imagine new possibilities.
Being successful in a leadership role necessarily entails being courageous enough to surround yourself with good people who are a lot smarter than you. Perhaps even more important than technical expertise is this key aspect of building effective teams, and the benefits to this approach are reciprocal. Not only will the team excel in meeting its goals, but as a leader you have the opportunity to help guide the next generation of professionals and prepare them to succeed you someday.
Learning how to build an effective team as well as work with a team of colleagues who are also in leadership roles is essential. Seeing your team more broadly and building relationships with the provost, chief information officer, chief human resources officer, and marketing and fundraising professionals, for example, will help you better manage challenges as they arise and continue to move the institution forward.
At UMass Lowell, the police department reports to the CBO. I never thought I would be working with law enforcement so closely. Given that campus security has been an increasing priority for institutions across the country, I had to get up to speed quickly. Building relationships with my new team members and trusting in their expertise helped me through this new learning experience so that we could ultimately meet our goal of securing the campus through a community-based policing philosophy.
Sometimes, when you’re with your team or colleagues, there might be a negative thinker in the group—someone who complains a lot or criticizes the organization. It is easy to get caught up in this negative energy, and there were occasions when I found myself buying into someone else’s feelings to the degree that I started to question whether I wanted to be at that organization anymore. It has taken me a long time to learn that I no longer want to get caught up in that pessimism—it just wastes energy.
Principles in Practice
I’ve been at UMass Lowell for 11 years, and we are continuing to raise the bar and make progress for the campus beyond all of our imaginations as we implement our 10-year strategic plan, launched in 2010. We have increased our enrollment by 25 percent; improved our six-year graduation rate (from 51 percent in 2010 to 66 percent in 2019); increased the diversity of students, faculty, and staff; and doubled our operating budget.
We are continuing to focus on growing enrollment with increased selectivity, which has required, in part, that we renovate or build a number of new facilities. We have been engaged in a complete physical transformation of the campus—spending $1 billion to add 17 new or renovated buildings since FY10, increasing our university square footage by 2 million, and achieving nearly 100 percent building accessibility.
UMass Lowell has been able to accomplish this degree of transformation through an open, transparent, inclusive, and iterative process. Our strategic plan is not a fixed document, but rather one that continues to evolve and rely on the commitment and hard work of hundreds of people across the university community who have brought about progress in all areas—from student success, to groundbreaking research, to our growing endowment.
We all hold ourselves accountable to the goals we have set, and one way that the institution measures its progress is by publishing an annual report card. It is a useful gauge of what we have accomplished and the work that remains ahead of us.
From a CBO’s perspective, I truly believe the successes we’ve seen at UMass Lowell are due to the continuity of our experienced leadership; an entrepreneurial culture; and our transparent, inclusive, and accountable process. I feel privileged to have been a part of this team for the past 11 years, and sometimes I think I prepared my whole 40-plus-year career to help my alma mater rise to this next level. The teamwork, courage, and persistence of myself and the executive and senior team members are bringing successes to fruition.
Reaching out to Academic Leadership
In the last few years, as part of my involvement with academic effectiveness and efficiency initiatives, I have been working with the academic leadership on course management—monitoring faculty workload and student-to-faculty ratios by using the tools available to us through our institutional research department’s data analysis.
We are looking for possible efficiencies across the UMass system, and I was recently appointed to a new financial planning advisory working group formed by the board of trustees. We are also looking for opportunities for shared services across the system’s five campuses in the areas of procurement, payroll, and information technology.
Sometimes these conversations can be fraught with emotion and a little bit of controversy, as during board meetings when campus chancellors and provosts feel that board members are pushing hard for academic effectiveness. On these occasions, Chancellor Jaqueline Moloney is a great mentor to me. She manages the expectations of all parties with grace and respect for each perspective in a way that mollifies the intense emotions that can arise, ultimately ensuring our continued effectiveness in executing our mutual mission.
The Future Is Now
At UMass Lowell, the information technology department reports to the CBO, which means I am responsible for continuing the university’s long record of embracing technology. In 2014, I instructed our new chief information officer to develop a plan to modernize our campus infrastructure. The resulting $12 million network upgrade, completed in four years, positioned UMass Lowell to meet its campus and research technology demands.
When the school moved its main IT data center off campus to a shared UMass system facility, we were then able to invest the operating expenses that we had saved into implementing a modern CRM solution to better automate our recruiting, retention, and student success efforts. This robust platform is now being leveraged to automate areas of the university that were formerly data silos.
In addition, by growing revenue in online distance education by more than $40 million, UMass Lowell has helped ensure that the program is substantial and well-regarded. I have found that faculty truly enjoy, respect, and welcome any kind of new technology—from instructional technology in the classroom to learning management systems to computer laboratories, and even to social media for managing student expectations—and I am proud to be part of the team that brings these cutting-edge tools to campus.
One of the most exciting ways that UMass Lowell has adopted technology to streamline functions and save costs has been its vLabs program—a collection of virtual labs that provide students and faculty with the critical software they need at any time, at any place, and on any device. For example, by using vLabs, an engineering student has 24/7 access to high-end design software on his or her own computer—even if that computer is too old or slow to run the software natively. Students love it because they previously had to adjust their schedules to physically be in the lab when it was open or purchase a high-end laptop—now both constraints are gone.
This technology has had a huge impact on space savings because the university no longer needs to have as many labs. Furthermore, faculty have been very pleased with vLabs because they no longer need to book a computer lab for recitation; they can do it in the classroom with students’ own devices or with Chromebooks supplied by UMass Lowell. In addition, reducing the time between lecture and recitation has improved student understanding and success.
The CBOs of today have many hurdles ahead of them. Meeting the challenges of technology—keeping up with the record pace of new software and innovative devices—will continue to be a dynamic and promising proposition. Succession planning is another challenge that will more frequently arise as baby boomers, who hold many leadership roles in higher ed, retire in greater numbers. As an EACUBO board member on the program and services committee, my colleagues and I give a lot of thought to the programs that we need to offer to help prepare the next generation of CBOs, such as mentoring programs and onsite career services at the conference, as well as future technologies such as artificial intelligence and blockchain.
Today’s leaders must commit themselves to succession planning in order to help ensure that institutions thrive well into the future. Indeed, one of the most important ways we can give back to our communities and schools—and ultimately honor our own years of dedicated service to higher education—is by ensuring that the up-and-coming cohort of business officers is prepared to meet whatever challenges lie ahead.
JOANNE YESTRAMSKI is senior vice chancellor for finance, operations, and strategic planning at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.