David E. Lechner, CPA, CGMA

Senior vice president and CFO of the University of Nebraska

 David E. Lechner, CPA, CGMA
David E. Lechner, CPA, CGMA, senior vice president and CFO of the University of Nebraska, says finance executives play a critical analytical role in strategic decisions in higher education. (Photo by Earl Richardson/AP Images)

Combine your priorities with the passions of people

Amazingly diverse challenges: I really enjoy the diversity of challenges posed by this job. It's a $2.5 billion organization that has so many moving parts. We are an economic engine for our state. We have 52,000 students from around the world. We've got 3,700 faculty, who are core to our teaching, research, and public service missions. We have four campuses in three different cities mixed into this recipe. Each day, we house and feed more people than the two largest hotels combined in Las Vegas. For good measure, we add in a $100 million athletics program.

Finance influences strategy: Finance officers at universities are integral to strategy formation and execution in today's higher ed markets. When we engage our elected board, whether it is regarding a new building, pricing tuition, or looking at the university going forward, we've got to make sure what we do hews closely to our strategic objectives of affordable access, keeping student debt low, holding down costs, and being competitive in the marketplace. We can't afford to be transactional. We've got to be analytical and strategic.

Retaining staff: Employees are our core asset. Competition is fierce because you have private sector and higher ed institutions wooing these same highly talented women and men. If you provide faculty with the necessary tools and funding to support their teaching and research, and you combine public as well as private sources, that helps retention. You also have to trust: Trust yourself to hire the right people and set expectations for them, and then trust that they will get the job done and bring you in when necessary.

Affordability and access: We are affordable right now, next to our peers, which is a strategic advantage we don't want to lose. We know we need to continue to expand access: enrolling more first-generation and more underrepresented students and helping them believe college is possible. This involves us all: educators, policymakers, citizens, and philanthropic leaders and organizations.

Partnering for success: Fundraising is an essential part of who we are. Private gifts have absolutely allowed us to do things we wouldn't have otherwise been able to do. People devote their time, their talent, and their treasure to things they're passionate about. When you match those passions up with strategic priorities—in our case, leading in early childhood learning; cancer care and research; interactive and immersive learning technologies; and feeding a global population that's expected to reach 9.6 billion, to name a few—the combination becomes very powerful, and great things become possible.

—As told to Sheon Ladson Wilson (sheonlwilson@aol.com), a freelance writer in Durham, N.C.

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