MONEY & MANAGEMENT
A Number Cruncher Goes Out of His Way to Put Students First
BY PAUL FAIN
MATTHEW V. FILIPIC
calls himself a bean counter.
Most days, Mr. Filipic,
who is senior vice president for business and fiscal affairs and treasurer
here at Wright State University, strolls
through the campus tunnel system to
have lunch in the student union. A few
years back, he was concerned to see
that his lunch receipt included no state
Failure to charge 35 cents for a
$5 soup and salad might not seem
like a big deal, but Mr. Filipic says
it would be hypocritical for a public university to seek state financing
without toeing the line on taxes.
He collected his receipts and made
sure the sales-tax charges started appearing.
While being a dining-hall whistle-blower is hardly Mr. Filipic’s chief
occupation, prudence is part of the
delicate balancing act of managing
a public university budget—a challenge that is especially tough in this
During an interview, Mr. Filipic
sounds more like an advocate than a
bureaucrat. While earning his Ph.D.
in political science at Ohio State
University, he dreamed of a career
of tweed jackets and smoking pipes.
But the law of supply and demand
intervened, and he took a job as a
budget analyst in state government.
He retained his passion for the
mission of public universities, however, and is evidence that the stereotype of a chief financial officer as a
distant decision-maker and technician may be outdated.
While he is self-effacing and a tad
shy, Mr. Filipic can be forceful in arguing that the university must consider students when setting budget
priorities. He returns often to Wright
State’s record of serving middle-in-come students, noting that 44 percent
of undergraduates here are first-generation college students. The issue resonates personally with Mr. Filipic, who
commuted to his classes as an undergraduate at John Carroll University, in
Cleveland, because he could not afford
to live on the campus.
He says preserving relatively affordable tuition at Wright State
(about $7,000 in tuition and fees for
Ohio residents) is a priority. But the
university’s operating margins are
getting tighter, and difficult choices
may loom. Wright State’s endowment
has dipped to about $85-million from
$130-million in June 2007.
“If we’re going to keep tuition
down,” he says, “we’ve got to keep
our spending down.”
WILL JONES, WRIGH T STATE UNIVERSI T Y CEN TER FOR TEACHING & LEARNING
Matthew Filipic, Wright State’s senior vice president for business and fiscal affairs, shows his team-player ethos
by giving up his convenient parking spot for one on a remote lot.
the possibility of steep cuts in state
contributions. Despite the support
of a governor who has made higher
education a priority, Ohio’s public
universities are anxiously eyeing a
depressing budget season.
Wright State’s challenge is to control costs and remain accessible to the
region’s students while simultaneously
building on its success as a research
Whatever happens, Mr. Filipic’s
division will play
an important role
in setting the university’s course. For
his part, the senior vice president, who
has a youthful smile at age 63, seems to
carry the weight of his role lightly. He
says he is hopeful, if not always confident, about the future. But he says any
easy answers to the university’s dilemmas are wrong.
“We can’t simply be a regional
economic engine,” he says. “Neither
can we be an ivory tower.”
Leaders of Ohio’s public universities say Gov. Ted Strickland, a Democrat, has ushered in a new era of cooperation between their institutions
and state government.
But that commitment will be put
to the test as the state faces a $640-
million shortfall in the current budget, with deficit projections as high as
$7.3-billion for Ohio’s next two-year
budget, which will be hashed out in
2009. Mr. Strickland must present a
balanced-budget proposal by February
2, and has warned that it may include
significant cuts to higher education.
“We’re very concerned about what
might be coming down from Columbus,” says Mr. Filipic.
The governor has said that only
federal assistance can keep Ohio’s
universities off the chopping block.
According to The Washington Post,
Mr. Strickland left a phone message
for Rahm Emanuel, the incoming
White House chief of staff, in which
he said: “Rahm, it’s Ted. You’ve nev-
er failed me, and I need $5-billion.”
But Mr. Strickland’s plea is one
of hundreds the Obama administration has received from governors
Regardless, orders have come down
from Columbus for Wright State and
other universities to prepare to present “shovel ready” projects on their
campuses. Mr. Filipic’s office is collecting options
ranging from renovations to make
energy friendly to
a new neurosci-
ence research facility whose design
costs would be kept down by using the
plans for a recently built campus facility, with only simple modifications.
Caught in the Economic Crisis
‘A NUMBER ON THE PROBLEM’
of debt, a small sum, particularly for
a university with an annual budget of
$390-million. And the interest on all
of that debt is fixed-rate. Before the
credit collapse, Mr. Filipic admits, he
worried whether the university had
“missed the boat” on cheaper, vari-able-rate loans. Now he says he will
gladly stick to avoiding anything but
“plain vanilla” debt arrangements.
Wright State has also been conservative with its investments, steering clear
of hedge funds and only in recent years
moving substantially into equities.
The university has also capitalized on several advantages. It is located close to the Wright-Patterson
Air Force Base, and has for years
forged ties to defense contractors
and high-tech companies operating
in the university’s backyard.
Wright State is also a young institution. Like other upstarts with solid
research bases, like the University of
Maryland-Baltimore County, the university has a history of being nimble.
It is the sort of place where faculty
members generally eschew tradition
“I’m confident that we’ll respond
in a very creative way,” says David
R. Hopkins, the university’s president, of the financial crisis. “Ohio
needs us more than ever before.”
These are uneasy times at Wright
State, and, for that matter, at most of
the nation’s universities. While the
full impact of the economic crisis has
yet to be felt, Wright State’s budget is
already being tugged in many directions. All spending must be weighed
against what the university can expect
from the state’s coffers and how much
tuition students can afford to pay.
The biggest looming problem is
From his tidy office in the university’s main administration building,
in which he displays an impressive
collection of coffee mugs from various college campuses, Mr. Filipic
runs multiple budget scenarios based
on various state contributions.
“I think people would feel much
better if we could just put a number
on the problem,” he says.
Mr. Filipic and other university
officials say Wright State is relatively well positioned to weather the
challenges. Ever the careful spender, he has helped the university avoid
the worst of the credit crisis by reinforcing its history of fiscal caution.
Before being hired by Wright State,
in 2000, he spent 15 years with the
Ohio Board of Regents as a budget coordinator. Before that he was director
of the Ohio legislature’s budget office.
Both positions gave him a broad view
of the financing of public universities.
He says he decided to take the job at
Wright State in part because of the
board’s conservative approach to money, which includes an aversion to borrowing and a strategy of reinvesting
surpluses in building maintenance.
Wright State has just $35-million
Despite Wright State’s relatively
strong position, it is an uncertain time
on campus—and people don’t like
uncertainty, says Mr. Filipic. University employees remember layoffs in
the 1990s. But for now, Wright State
has no plans to lay anyone off and has
not instituted a freeze on hiring.
“I hate hiring freezes,” Mr. Filipic
says. He calls them the “opposite of
While freezes are a quick help
on balance sheets, they fail to make
permanent improvements and end
up affecting the wrong positions.
For example, he argues, it would be
foolish for a university medical cen-
ter to block the hiring of nurses, who
do essential work but typically have
higher turnover rates.
Instead, the university’s administration has worked “quietly, at the margins” to tackle budget challenges. The
provost has asked deans to be prudent
about hiring, and Mr. Filipic’s office is
working on a range of possible cost-cut-ting steps, like employee furloughs.
As Wright State anxiously awaits
news from Columbus, Mr. Filipic
says he continues to have a collegial
relationship with other administrators and faculty members.
Mr. Hopkins praises his chief financial officer as a valuable campus leader who has an ability to “see things in
a way that jars me occasionally.”
Mr. Filipic attends monthly Faculty Senate meetings and often answers budget questions. But, he says,
nobody buttonholes him as he walks
through Wright State’s tunnels and
along campus pathways.
“I’m not the decider,” he says.
“There is no one place to lobby.”
In fact, like many research universities, Wright State is a remarkably decentralized institution. Mr. Filipic delegates many budget decisions to department chiefs. But their independence
could be threatened if worst-case financial scenarios materialize. At the very
least, he worries, some independent decision making would have to be taken
away from budget managers.
In the meantime, Mr. Filipic will
continue to quietly set an example
as a team player. A couple of years
ago, a frustrated student complained
to him about the long walk to class
from a satellite parking lot. Mr. Filipic did not have a good explanation
for why senior administrators deserve plum, reserved parking spots.
So he asked to have his spot moved.
These days the bean counter walks
to work from the farthest spot in the
most distant lot. But a sign at his spot
still reads, “Restricted at All Times—
Vice President Business and Fiscal Affairs.”