College CFO’s role must expand in tough financial times

Today's campus CFO must have an entrepreneurial spirit
By: | Issue: August, 2014
July 29, 2014

Rising operating costs, unstable revenue streams and continued tough economic times are forcing the campus CFO’s role to grow, say higher ed presidents surveyed by executive search firm Witt/Kieffer.

In the report, 14 presidents from a mix of public and private institutions of all sizes commented on today’s financial pressures.

“What was most surprising was the level of agreement among the presidents,” says Karen Goldstein, search consultant for Witt/Kieffer and lead researcher for the survey. “They all said the role of the CFO has been expanded in ways previously unimagined.”

CFOs must communicate with trustees frequently and make sure the board understands the fundamentals of higher ed finances. “Trustees are often smart financially but not higher ed experts,” says Goldstein. “The CFO needs to educate them so they can make the best judicial decisions.”

All cabinet members should understand the finances of the whole institution, not just of their departments—and it’s the CFO’s job to teach them, says Goldstein.

It is also especially critical now for the CFO to hire and manage an effective financial team. “The CFO’s direct reports should be good leaders who can take care of the day-to-day finance matters so the CFO has time to work on strategic analysis and planning,” says Goldstein.

Today’s CFOs also need an entrepreneurial spirit so they can work with the president, cabinet members and faculty to brainstorm new ways to generate revenue, says Goldstein.

The full report, titled “Reinventing Leadership in Higher Education: A Confidential Survey of College Presidents,” can be found at