There are more than 2,800 miles between Berkeley, California and Charlottesville, Virginia. But after Kelsey Harmon Finn seriously thought over the offer to become the CEO of NACAS the job just seemed so much closer – so much like where she belonged.
She accepted the position on Oct. 13 and almost immediately headed off with her husband Brian on a bold, new adventure.
“There was a moment of sanity that said, ‘You’re not getting in a car and driving that far.’ But I thought we were (going to) for awhile,’’ joked Finn, who just prior to arriving in Virginia celebrated her 39th birthday with Brian (who has been in sales since the two left UNLV three years ago).
There was no cake, only boxes to unpack shortly after reaching her new destination following stints at Illinois State, UNLV and UC Berkeley, with a total of 15 years in higher education and association management behind her.
For the past three years she worked as the executive director for the Auxiliary and Student Union at the University of California-Berkeley, where she managed a $20 million operating budget with over 150 employees, and oversaw the university’s largest student fee-funded project, a $223 million student union complex.
Her cross country trek in less than a month was a whirlwind.
“We were packed up and had the movers pick us up on the 25th (of October) and we were in San Antonio for the conference on the 29th, and we landed in Charlottesville on Nov. 5. So we were on a mission,’’ Finn said.
Originally from Chicagoland, Finn’s new job developed over years of what has become a labor of love. She is replacing interim CEO Dr. Eleanor Mower filled with enthusiasm.
The new student union at Berkeley is an example of Finn’s dedication and willingness to dream big.
“It is the first time in history for Berkeley that they spent that large of a dollar amount on a student-focused building outside of the classroom, outside of athletics,’’ Finn said. “It was a project that really reshaped the out-of-classroom experience for students on campus.
“What the student union provided is a home away from home, a space where all students felt welcome,” she added. “They could find food, coffee, textbooks, supplies and access to other services. Most importantly, one thing students love right now is data and power. We designed the space so students could plug in and truly create a community that didn’t exist before. We’re dealing with incredibly smart students, and incredibly talented. But they are also 18-to-22 years old, looking for a place to connect and grow.”
Why the 2,800 mile journey now in her much-traveled life? To try and fulfill huge goals.
“I see the opportunity to make an impact on a global level, on how businesses and higher education can really help shape the student experience once on a college campus,” Finn said. “And we’re at a time where funding from state, from donors, from tuition and fees can only cover so much, and the idea around the way business shows up on a college campus to help support the core function of a university to me is critical to the future of higher education.”
While working as the director of student union and event services at UNLV Finn took a gamble even the casinos would admire.
She put to use a housing complex to raise funds from $200,000 to $1.6 million almost overnight, with a plan that revolved around an empty facility’s adjusted use for housing. It’s a prime example of how she feels colleges can raise more funds by being creative.
“We self-operated the program,’’ she said. ”We turned a residential hall that was empty into a year-round conference housing program. It was a hotel-like set up within our residence halls. This is an example of where you use business models to benefit the student experience.
“You can evaluate what actually worked internally and where you need to partner with folks from the external, or from the business world, on campus.’’
Finn would like to see more schools use such an example in the future, bringing in a new cash flow from outside.
“For groups to come on campus and do their association meetings, their business meetings, it’s definitely a revenue generating piece of a college campus. You are able to offer rates that are more competitive than a lot of hotels and convention centers,” Finn said. “They are for a certain type (of meetings), not all groups are willing to stay but the market is there.”
Finn recognizes that these kinds of changes will not work for every school, particularly those that only offer dormitory type accommodations.
“(At some facilities) you have group bathrooms, you sleep on a twin bed, so it’s not ideal for everyone,’’ she said. “But some (schools) are creating hotels, some are changing the style of rooms that they have, so there are many options happening.”
Among her many other goals is the idea of teaming business and education.
“I really like the idea of partnership between the business industry and the higher education world,’’ she said.”I believe that the research, and the tools, and the data, and the innovation that’s happening in the business world can be leveraged to help not only generate revenue on the college campus but really help contribute to a student experience so they are more ready to aberrate the world after college because they have to (later) interact in these businesses. They have to show up in the world when they are done with school, right?”
“They’re not a student forever. I think businesses are ready to share their information and resources and higher education professionals can take that information and really utilize it in helping develop students, help students grow, and provide services and resources on our campuses they couldn’t otherwise without a business partner. (And) there’s the reverse benefit: some of these businesses will benefit from student interns, student focus groups, and creativity coming from what students are asking for and engaging in those conversations.”
Finn became involved with NACAS after a chance visit from the organization while she was working at UNLV, and eventually would head the west region. But she had no idea she’d eventually lead the organization.
“The west region was interested in hosting a conference at UNLV and they contacted me,’’ Finn said. “They invited me to a meeting and asked why I wasn’t more involved with NACAS and I gave my honest opinion.The perception at the time was that NACAS was a good old boys club and conferences were spent golfing and going to parties. It was difficult for a young professional as myself to convince my boss to spend limited travel dollars on an experience with limited education opportunities. So they asked me to join the board of directors and help recreate what the conference offered in the west region.”
Finn’s official start date for the CEO position is Jan. 11, when she plans to hit the ground running.
“I think what the organization can do is give information to our members, really be a resource of what’s trending at different categories of auxiliary services in everything from parking, to housing, to food service, to student unions, to retail dining, (and in) bookstores, and truly being a non-biased source of information, so when schools are deciding and individuals are making choices on their campus they feel like they are well informed of what’s happening in the industry,” Finn said. “I think that’s the power that NACAS brings. It gives people information so they make knowledgeable decisions.”
Growing membership is another goal. How does that happen?
“Time of course, any time you do membership it’s sales, so that’s time,” she said “But I think our bigger hurdle is communicating the message of the value that we bring. We have just over 700 or so members and there is the potential of 2,900 institutions just with the U.S. that could be members…To me, it’s how do we get that message out to our non-members so they can understand and see the value of belonging to our Association?” Schools will no doubt try to find ways of raising revenue in coming years. As Finn has shown, her creativity in that area should be a major benefit to NACAS members.
It has happened everywhere she’s been in the past, but how does she meet the challenge of helping make that happen at every member institution?
“That’s a tough one because that varies so much from campus to campus,” she said. “I think focusing on hot topics related to auxiliary services will help bring value and new direction to all member campuses. Hot topics right now include parking services, the book store industry, and how you are generating revenue both within the four walls of the book store and in the on-line segment. I also believe housing is another huge component for what’s happening at universities, getting away from a dormitory-style and getting into more of an apartment-style living, community type living. Doing public-private partnerships related to housing is another big topic.”
“And the next thing, evaluating space that is not in use year-round and how can you utilize that for community engagement, for business partners, for events and conferences? All sorts of things are possible. That varies from campus to campus and community to community.”
Boxes unpacked, the long journey over, Finn is eager to help the organization continue to grow, and believes the sky is the limit. When 2016 kicks off, this new CEO can’t wait to ring in the New Year and an exciting new start.
She put in the miles to prove it.