Editor’s Note: New CFO needs to bring financial confidence back

By Megan Bennett, Editor-In-Chief

As reported on the Front Page, the college has completed its national search for a new vice president of Business Affairs and CFO.

Jerry Tarrer, who will be assuming the position in January 2017, comes from the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee where he helped “steer that institution through financially challenging times,” according to a Dec. 6 email from President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim.

While several higher-ups, including Kim, and the Chairman of the Board of Trustees Bill Wolf deny that Columbia is in a difficult financial state, despite the 9.4 percent enrollment drop the college saw in the Fall 2016 Semester—as reported Oct. 3 by The Chronicle—Tarrer’s experience working with institutions facing enrollment decline and financial struggles will help Columbia as its departments and schools face annual cuts.

In addition to having his work cut out for him, Tarrer is succeeding a long line of short-term CFOs. As reported Feb. 29 by The Chronicle, former Vice President of Business Affairs and CFO Michelle Gates’ departure marked the college’s fifth financial head in five years. Richard Dowsek, who assumed the interim position for the second time after she left, has worked at the college longer than some of his permanent predecessors.

For Tarrer to succeed and have an impact on Columbia’s financial operations, he needs to stay long-term, even when the work becomes difficult or unlike his public institution experience.

Though Kim, Dowsek and Wolf remain steadfast in their confidence, faculty staff and students have been disheartened for many years. Annual revenue has decreased along with the student body, with the instructional departments’ budgets taking the biggest hit and administrative expenses remaining stable or increasing. In the 2016–2017 fiscal year budget, Dowsek also said more money is being taken from the college’s endowments to pay for Strategic Plan initiatives and, at the time, there was still $2 million that needed to be cut from “non-strategic” expenses.

The college also recently announced an approximately 4 percent tuition increase scheduled for the Fall 2017 Semester, one decision among others that caused affordability experts to express concerns about Columbia’s finances, as reported Nov. 21 by The Chronicle.

While some of these cuts or changes may be unavoidable because of declining enrollment, Tarrer can succeed in his role as CFO by ensuring the college’s bottom line always rules in favor of student resources. The college has not always been confident in the decisions of previous leaders.

Wolf told The Chronicle that one of Tarrer’s top jobs will be to “rationalize facilities” that the college is looking to either build, sell or buy. This would include the student center, slated to be finished in the Fall 2018 Semester with a $40 million–$50 million price tag. Hopefully, Tarrer will be able to devise a plan to make this building and other future projects either come to fruition by helping to successfully generate alternative capital or set the project aside until enrollment and revenue is stabilized.

The college community should go forward with confidence. Tarrer accepted this role with experience in line with Columbia’s needs. He also comes in at a time when Dowsek has changed the budget model to a collaborative style instead of with across-the-board mandates. This is a positive change by Dowsek and something college officials said they expect will continue with Tarrer.

Tarrer is coming into an institution where faculty, staff and students feel uncertainty, but a fresh start with an experienced new mind who will think independently and puts student needs first is exactly what the college needs in the new year.