When Brett Powell is asked what distinguishes his day-to-day role as a finance leader inside the world of academia from that of his CFO peers residing within industry, Powell without hesitation says, “Complexity.”
Aware that such a one-word answer would likely summon only more questions, Powell continues: “Essentially, when you think about it, we’re running a city … we house people, we feed people, we provide them with utilities. Everything that’s required to run your hometown needs to be replicated on a university campus.”Read More
Still, Powell points out that one of the fundamental differences has to do with an organizational mind-set when it comes to cost allocation and subsidization.
“Corporations will look at each of their product lines and try to understand the profitability of the product, and if one is losing money, then they just end that product line and move on to something else—but we don’t think about academic programs in the same way,” comments Powell, who adds that during a previous CFO tour of duty he had created a resource allocation model for a “resource-restrained” university, only to quickly discover how cross-subsidization activities between the different departments and programs added new layers of complexity.
“Just putting the data in front of people was not enough—they needed to really understand the perspective and the strategic direction that we were trying to follow,” remarks Powell, who notes that he would often find himself helping different department heads to understand why getting less of a subsidy wasn’t always a negative for their department.
Says Powell: “If a university’s business school is generating so much profit that it can subsidize other programs by a certain amount, then we need to think about how this subsidy might be able to grow if the business school were to invest more—and to understand how all of the other programs might ultimately be able to gain from the business school’s success if we started to make such decisions differently.” –Jack Sweeney
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CFOTL: Tell us about Baylor University … what sets it apart from other colleges and universities?
Powell: Baylor is an almost-200-year-old university that was founded in 1845. Our main campus is in Waco, Texas. We have sites or campuses in several other cities in Texas. The thing that is unique about Baylor is that we have had an unapologetic Christian mission ever since the founding of the institution that is true even today, almost 180 years later. What this means is that when our faculty is working on research, they do it from a Christian perspective. If they’re trying to solve some of the world’s greatest problems—like hunger or global flourishing, for example—or just really trying to understand the world, they do this through the Christian worldview that they bring to their research. The same goes for how they approach teaching in the classroom.Read More
They want to instill in students that they’re going to be future business leaders or future PhDs or engineers or whatever and that having this Christian worldview will be part of what they take into that role when they finish their work at Baylor. I believe that this is the primary distinction that we have. Many Christian universities over the years have more or less abandoned their original missions, but ours has held true for Baylor across all of these years.
Over the next 12 months, I want our finance team to really focus on what we can stop doing. There are some amazing tools in Oracle Cloud that will automate some of the things that we are trying to do manually. How do we allow the system to work for us so that we can stop doing some things and really focus on adding value to our partners across the university? What will allow us to fulfill our advisory role in a meaningful way so that we are seeing the insights that maybe other functions don’t have time to get to? We want to be able to reach out to them and say, “Hey, we’re seeing this trend that you probably need to pay attention to.” To me, this is the greatest thing that we can do over the next 12 months. We need to really focus on eliminating or reducing the things that we’re doing that don’t add value, so that we can turn our full attention to adding value across the university.
Baylor University | www.baylor.edu | Waco, Texas