October 23, 2018

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.”

Image: iStock/kasto80

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Non-Profits Are Feeling the Pain

WSJ has a Monday piece “Once-Robust Charity Sector Hit With Mergers, Closings” (the Recession Forces Nonprofits to Consolidate) that may be found here. It tells the story of a “homeless” woman with terminal lung cancer and a charity no longer able to afford to help her out. Sad.

When one charity’s COO says “we’ve had funding cut after funding cut, and we never know when the next shoe is going to drop,” that is a bad sign.

Hit by a drop in donations and government funding in the wake of a deep recession, nonprofits—from arts councils to food banks—are undergoing a painful restructuring, including mergers, acquisitions, collaborations, cutbacks and closings.

“Like in the animal kingdom, at some point, the weaker organizations will not be able to survive,” says Diana Aviv, chief executive of Independent Sector, a coalition of 600 nonprofits.

I saw that on the Discovery Channel and it wasn’t pretty.

Note: the Service says the value of your blood is not deductible as a charitable donation but cars are. As of 2005, cars are only deductible at FMV, not Blue Book. Damn you, fair value, foiled by the free market again!

Blame the Service for tightening its charitable donation rules at the worst possible time? Not sure on that one. While you’re reluctant to donate your $200 Toyota (ha) to charity because you could have claimed $2,000 under old rules, find some comfort in the fact that (alleged) terrorist “non profits” can not file for 2 years and somehow get away with it. You wonder why I advocate fixing the system from the ground up?

You can text $10 to Haiti but what about the “Economic Homeless” here in America? asks Young Money.

If this were a survey and you asked me “What do you think the IRS could do to encourage charitable donations?” I would answer “Tax breaks. It isn’t the Treasury’s job to distribute bailouts.” Yet they continue to behave as though it is their duty.

See the problem yet?

Hallelujah! Church Accounting Miracles!

I had no idea how much a minister can make but now I do. Wait a minute, this just tells me how to bypass Service rules by writing checks in the church’s name. I might totally be in the wrong line of work.

Free Church Accounting (I’m not kidding) brings us a question from “Sharon” of Corsicana, Texas:

How much money does a minister have to make in order for money to be reported?

I started my church back up after 12 years vacancy. I do not have very many members. Right now we are 3 active members and other people stop in from time to time. I do not actually receive money. Since the church is striving I use the money to pay the light bill, get the grass moved.


According to the IRS website, “Earnings of $400 or more are subject to self-employment taxes.” (that includes qualifying ministers)

If you are a church employee, income of $108.28 or more is subject to SE tax.

It would be better for you, if you opened a checking account in the church’s name and paid expenses out of it. If that’s not possible, just make sure and keep all of the receipts that show where the church funds are going.

Fascinating! I took the preliminary “Are You a Tax-Exempt Church” quiz on their website and failed miserably so I guess I’d make an awful 501(c)(3) but that’s probably for the best.

There are ways to fail at this of course, like the Spokane, WA priest who couldn’t keep his arms and legs (and other parts) inside of the vehicle at all times, financial mismanagement in the University of North Carolina system, and JDA favorite the University of Colorado’s wild credit card user with horrible hair.

I would never imply that more regulation is the answer; I’m merely pointing out that there’s a bit of work to be done in identifying non-profit fraud. Seriously, how can one detect fraud when the core basis of fund accounting is an imbalance between “expenses” and expenditures?

The Church of Jr Deputy Accountant Scientist? I’m down.