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What It Takes for a University Controller to Be Head of the Class

University Controller

A while back I spoke to several controllers at nonprofit organizations and asked them what tips they would give to an accounting or finance professional considering that role. Among the advice that was shared included “believe in the nonprofit’s mission and objectives” and “you won’t be rich, but the job is rewarding.”

It seems that similar advice can be given to those considering the job of controller at a state university.

“In reality, just like all industries, most people in the public sector are hardworking and dedicated, and that dedication extends to improve the world we live in. There is no doubt that you will not get rich being a controller at a university, but with that said, you have to take the intangibles in mind,” said Robert Kuehler, CPA, associate vice president/university controller at the University of Colorado. “Ask yourself if you want to have some role in making a difference in the world around you. Ask yourself if you are proud to say where it is you work and why. Ask yourself if you would rather have more time with your family and friends rather than being in the office or at the client.”

Alan West, CPA, CGMA, assistant vice president and university controller at the University of Florida, said a controllership position at a state university offers unique opportunities for accounting professionals that they will not find in a traditional auditing environment.

“The diverse stakeholders, funding sources, and university activities mean that you are always learning and never bored,” he added.

Six key tips for would-be university controllers

Kuehler and West, who recently shared how their career paths took them to their respective university controller roles, offered the following advice for accounting professionals who might want to follow in their footsteps:

1. Keep stakeholders in mind. “Recognize there are lots of stakeholders at a public state university, including faculty, students, administration, and the public,” West said. “Change is slow in this environment. When you come across a process that needs to change, or you want to implement new software, you need to stop and consider the impact and differing viewpoints of the different stakeholders on campus. How will this impact faculty? How will this impact students? Will other administrative areas be impacted?”

2. Know the government accounting rules. “If you are considering working for a public institution, it is extremely beneficial to have some background in the Governmental Accounting Standards Board,” Kuehler said. “While the differences between the FASB and the GASB are narrowing, they are definitely not the same. If you do not know, or are not willing to learn, then the public sector is not the place for you.”

3. Embrace technology. “As technology continues to advance, the CPA profession also needs to continue to evolve,” West said. “Sometimes it is hard for people to give up the comfort of their Excel spreadsheets or change how transactions are processed. It is an important role for the controller to embrace new technology and continuously challenge the status quo of how transactions are processed.”

4. Collegiality is paramount. “Know that big decisions require significant time and input from a broad range of people,” Kuehler said. “You have to work with others in a deliberative process to accomplish things.”

5. Consider volunteering. “I’m currently the chair for the Florida Institute of CPAs. I am the 90th person to hold this position, and I am the first person ever from higher education. Volunteering with the FICPA has been tremendously beneficial,” West said. “It has provided me the chance to learn from my peers in other industries, as well as the opportunity to serve on the AICPA Governing Council. This service allows me to see how the CPA profession is changing for the future. Lastly, I have made some great friends along the way in volunteering. I would encourage everyone to become engaged in your state CPA society.”

6. Lend a hand. “If you are coming from public accounting, understand you are moving from the profit center of an organization to a cost center. Your role is to support the people providing the educational, research, and public service missions of the university,” Kuehler said. “Do your best to help them, and you will help the university. In doing so, you are having a positive impact.”

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