Q&A with MaryFrances McCourt

MaryFrances McCourt, vice president for finance and treasurer, discusses her background, what she does on a daily basis at Penn, how she wants to improve student services, and much, much more.

MaryFrances McCourt
Photo by Peter Tobia

While an undergraduate student at Duke, MaryFrances McCourt thought she had life all figured out.

Studying economics, she expected to enroll in the 3-2 MBA program and pursue international business upon graduating. At around 30, she’d get married, and maybe have her first child at 35.

But like most peoples’ 10 year plans, McCourt’s took a turn, and she never looked back.

Serendipity, in fact, and a lot of hard work, has led McCourt in many unexpected ways throughout the years. It steered her into corporate finance, first, then into higher education, and now, to Penn as its vice president for finance and treasurer.

“Plans are going to change, so just embrace it,” she says. “It’s funny, with me living in different places, wherever I live I find I love it. People say, ‘You love it here,’ and I say, ‘I’ll love the next thing, too.’ It’s just how you look at it.”

McCourt joined the Penn team in March 2016, after serving for 10 years at Indiana University, where she made a name for herself as a champion for financial process modernization, student success, and educational affordability.

Now, McCourt brings that same passion to Penn’s campus every day, working to serve collaboratively with all of the University’s constituents—the faculty, staff, students, donors, and state.

McCourt sat down with the Current in her Franklin Building office to chat about her background, some of her biggest accomplishments from Indiana, what she does on a daily basis at Penn, how she wants to improve student services, and much, much more.

Q:

You’ve been at Penn for about 18 months now. How has it been so far?

A:

I love it. It’s been a very easy transition. You’d think coming from Indiana, the Midwest, with a different kind of a campus, non-urban, to an urban campus, and living right in the city, that it’d be difficult, but it’s been a very easy transition. The people have been great.

Q:

What does being a vice president for finance and treasurer at a school like Penn mean?

A:

It’s interesting because we are sitting here, right in front of a new building [the Ronald O. Perelman Center for Political Science and Economics] behind us. When you think about all the construction on campus, you think, ‘Well, how do we fund that?’ There’s the approval of the project, and then there is the funding aspect. So, I might be analyzing financials from different schools to make sure they can afford whatever the building is, and if that building requires any sort of external debt, or sometimes there’s internal loans, this office would structure that. We issued $200 million of debt last winter. There’s a lot of complexity that goes in that, working with outside investment bankers, rating agencies, really understanding all the intricacies of the University to position that.

Then there are issues such as how we assess tuition, how we award financial aid, how students pay bills and register for classes, how do we invest the money that we have? We have an investment office that handles our endowment and long-term investment strategy, but we have to decide the appropriate level for short- and long-term investing.

We prepare and analyze the consolidated financial statements of the University, including the Health System. We ensure their accuracy and compliance with accounting standards. There are also the typical functions of a finance office, such as accounts payable and receivable, payroll, and tax.

My office is also jointly responsible, with the Vice Provost for Research, for the research administration office that handles federal compliance with our billion-dollar research portfolio. We have a global support office, which handles anything global, such as employees with J-1 visas or international travel or tax issues, those are all here. Accounting for gifts. We also maintain our financial systems and provide institution-wide financial and research training, and establish institutional financial policies and then make sure we adhere to those. Risk management for the University, both the academic side and all of its hospitals, is under this office as well. There is a wide breadth of responsibility.

Q:

How many people do you oversee?

A:

I oversee approximately 250 people over 10 major offices and several departments.

Q:

Were you doing something very similar at Indiana?

A:

Yes. But every place is structured just a bit differently, with a culture cultivated over many years. At Indiana, a difference was that I had all human resource administration and purchasing for a university with seven campuses and 125,000 students. Whereas here, these functions report to other areas. We have one campus, we have a health system, and we have much less, but higher credentialed, students. Additionally, at Penn, I have the dual responsibility for research, which I didn’t have there. Student financial services is also different, as I was only responsible for bursar functions at IU while I have the full breadth with Financial Aid, Bursar, Registrar, and Student Services operations at Penn. And there I had a couple billion-dollar operating investment portfolio, where here we have a separate investment office that handles this function. So there are enough similarities but enough differences that make it kind of fun and challenging, which is why you make changes.

Q:

You were at IU for more than 10 years. Were you looking to leave?

A:

No, I wasn’t. I loved IU and had a fantastic team there. Many times we get presented with opportunities. I finally asked myself, ‘What’s my short list of criteria for which I would contemplate a career change?’ One of them was that I love the East Coast. I had been at a public institution, so I thought, ‘Why not look at a private institution?’ It would be different. And then I thought, ‘Why go down in reputation? I want to go up.’ So if a school could meet those criteria, then I would be interested in looking. Most importantly, you have to click with the people. When I interviewed at Penn, I immediately felt comfortable with the people and had the upmost respect for its senior leadership.

Q:

Tell me about your background.

A:

Funny thing about my background, I was focused on having a career, planning to maybe get married at 30, have a baby at 35. I thought I’d go to business school right away. I had all these things planned. I was going to study at Oxford University one summer during undergrad, and I had six weeks to work. I met a guy, and he asked me to marry him six weeks later. Now, I still went to Oxford and I finished my senior year, but I got married a month after I graduated, and I was pregnant a month later. I worked on the corporate side for 20 years, at two corporations that were vastly different. One was an older industry, nothing that exciting. But, large margins and stable growth. The company sold commercial water treatment chemicals. From there I went to a much larger technology distributor. It was fast-paced, slim margins, and changing rapidly. I rode the technology wave up, lived through the bubble, and then it burst. I experienced manufacturing moving to China and evolving strategy. But I actually wasn’t looking to leave there either. It was a fluke. One day, I was talking to my boss and I said something about trying treasury. Most of my career until then had been budgeting, financial analysis, decision support, and strategic and long-range planning. He accommodated my request and moved me into treasury. A year-and-a-half later I saw an advertisement online for treasurer at Indiana University. I had never been to Indiana, I never really knew much about the university, but I applied. I went there for an interview, and first of all the place blew me away. It was so gorgeous. I think I was coming in right as the door was slightly opening for a corporate person to be considered. I think the board was looking for that change. That’s how I got into higher ed. I’m a naturally curious person, always volunteering for anything, and I kept learning more and more. Our controller left to pursue another opportunity and then I took on half of her work, and then our chief financial officer left, actually to become the president of Temple. I was in a natural spot to apply for the CFO position there. I got it and became the senior vice president and CFO shortly thereafter. I just kept saying, ‘I’ll take this on, I’ll do this, I’ll do that.’ As I said, I’m curious. I take every opportunity as a learning experience. It’s an interesting background, and not at all what I planned. Looking back, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Q:

What did you study at Duke?

A:

Economics. I am a strong supporter of the liberal arts. In fact, I never had a finance class at Duke, and finance is my thing now. It was more learned on the job. I went back and got my master’s degree, but years later. My father always told me, ‘Learn to think, then you will be able to learn anything.’

Q:

What are some of your biggest accomplishments from Indiana?

A:

Some are defined by the job and some are totally not. Under my time, Indiana was one of eight public institutions of higher education that was rated AAA by rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s. We moved up several notches in those ratings while I was there. It was remarkable to have implemented strong fiscal discipline and gain the confidence of these governing bodies outside of the university to have that kind of faith in us to rate us AAA. I developed standardized financial analyses, long-range planning, and decision support tools. Indiana was a seven-campus institution spread across the state, with very different cultures. We had our flagship in Bloomington, and an urban campus that transitioned from a predominantly commuter campus to a vibrant campus with significant housing. Then we had five regional campuses, now six, two of which got student housing while I was there. I built a strong team that was disciplined but collaborative in its financial processes and policies, and had really strong partnerships with people across the entire state. We had a team that I’d often say, ‘Is there anyone on this team not firing at all cylinders?’

But, honestly, looking back, two things that I am especially proud of include wellness and financial literacy. When I became CFO, there was one woman who was supposed to be handling wellness. I said to her on the first day meeting with her, ‘If you want to work with me, and you are about wellness, you will know walking onto any campus in this state that we are about wellness.’ So, we created Healthy IU from a grassroots level. We came up with the mission ‘Live Your Best You.’ And that means whatever your best you is, because it’s different for everybody, we would support you in that journey. We got walking paths identified with markers built into the bricks on campus, we had mindfulness at the main gates at noon, chair yoga, blood pressure machines in most buildings, sleep challenges, step challenges, partnerships with our schools of public health. Anyone on any of those campuses now knows about wellness. And that idea started from nothing. Our financial literacy initiative was similar. We started with nothing and formed MoneySmarts, with the goal of reaching nontraditional and traditional students through varied pathways. We had online programming, free programming, paid for credit programming, workshops, online tools and podcasts, peer counseling. It got to the point where we had awards from Yahoo, Kiplinger, and Bloomberg. The U.S. treasury deputy secretary came to IU to visit us. I testified in front of the House Ways and Means. We had the state pass legislation that mirrored some of the work on the debt letters that we gave to students. We bent the curve on student debt at a place where we didn’t have significant institutional aid. At the same time, we expanded and enhanced our students’ financial health for the long term. It was so fulfilling.

Q:

What are some big projects that you’re working on at Penn?

A:

maryfrances
Photo by Peter Tobia

One thing I’m proud of, especially because I didn’t have any experience with research administration, is that I started an effort with the School of Medicine and our central research staff, which really hadn’t worked as collaboratively together, to go through every process we have and do a business process redesign, joining sharp people from both groups together on this. And they did a fantastic job. This is becoming our model: partnering with change agents across the University to think through the relevancy of our processes and implement enhancements where we can. I also set up a Research Shared Governance Board. So it’s not just us sitting in the center saying, ‘This is how we’re going to do X, Y, and Z.’ Instead, we have people from all the schools and centers working together on issues. And now we know each other, there are relationships formed, we’re collaborating. Those are the fun things.

Another significant focus is in the whole area of student services. I really want it to be looked at as a place where students want to go, that we’re giving them Ritz-Carlton-like service. I’d love to develop a one-stop shop there so that students can receive one-touch service for the majority of their student financial and registrar issues. We are also working on modernizing financial processes across the division to increase efficiency while ensuring the highest standards of compliance.

There are also enterprise system implementations in process for Human Capital Management and Student Services, and areas of my team are either managing or playing key roles in these. Decreasing administrative burden, working toward collaborative solutions, and optimally using our resources will be behind everything we do.

Q:

What are some of your short-term and long-term goals?

A:

Short term, there’s some financial processes that need to be modernized. There’s a lot of paper. I’m also looking at my organizations to just tweak the structures a bit to capitalize on where those interdependencies are, so we can better serve our customers and spend more time on adding value. I think the basis for anything is relationships, so short-term I want to really build relationships outside of the central administration, inside of the schools and centers with both academic and administrative personnel.

Q:

How do you do that?

A:

When I first started, I began setting up quarterly meetings with all of the key business people in all of the schools. We had some issues with financial aid this fall, so I picked up the phone and said, ‘Can I come over and talk with you?’ There’s a council of undergraduate deans and I recently met with them as well. I want to hear their perspectives and I want them to hear mine. I have an open door. If there’s anyone that wants to get together, I’ll make time in the next 48 hours. Something else I’m doing in my office is shadowing at every level. I’ll sit in the Cashier’s Office, listen in on financial aid calls. I’ve sat in the Office of the University Registrar. I’ve sat with all kinds of people in Treasury and Cash Management. You can learn a lot from each other that way.

Q:

While you were at Indiana, you were recognized for having such a strong voice for the affordability of higher education.

A:

At a public institution, there is so much pressure on tuition increase. The mission is to serve the state’s students in an accessible and affordable way. Affordability is how we keep that top line as low as possible, meaning what we are charging the students, and understanding that side of the picture also helps to drive an efficient business behind-the-scenes. I tried to help the business side of things be more efficient so we could free up funds to invest in our mission, without passing that cost on to the students. I would try to sit in every chair—as a university administrator, a student or parent, a donor, the state, and ask, ‘What are the expectations for accessibility and affordability? What do we all bring to the table? How do we all have ownership of this issue, and what can we do to create positive impact?’

Q:

Is that something you’re trying to implement here?

A:

We’re working to enhance the strong foundation and also intend to expand financial literacy initiatives. Penn has already done so much to impact affordability and accessibility. One of the wonderful things Penn has is our donor base and their commitment to these important initiatives. What we’ve done with institutional aid is remarkable. It has almost tripled since 2004 and has more than doubled the rate of tuition growth. When you look at what the portion of aid that’s actually covering the cost of tuition now versus 10 years ago, it’s a notably higher percentage. Conversely, borrowing relative to the cost of attendance has declined.

Q:

Why is that?

A:

Because we have provided more aid for students through our grant-based institutional aid, students have had to borrow less. But still, when you said short-term and long-term, financial literacy is a piece that I really do want to focus on. Students with aid or with debt are receiving significant amounts of money, and often as lump sums. They need to budget, to plan out the wants versus the needs, and to think through financial options. We need to teach them how to optimize debt, if that is an option. People are afraid of debt. But, there is good debt and bad debt. Optimal use is the key. We might hear that someone can’t come back to school because there’s $1,500 of debt in their package. This is not a ‘can’t come’ versus ‘can come.’ You can repay $1,500 of federal debt under many different programs. That might be a payment as low as $12 a month, under one plan, and then $50 over another plan. The return on investment with a Penn degree is quite favorable under varied financing options.

Q:

You do so much in this role. Is there one big thing you work on every day?

A:

Every day is different. Today, we had some issues with financial aid, we had a discussion on a complex structuring of a gift, we are working through an audit from the National Science Foundation, we have trustee meetings coming up so we’re talking about those agenda items and our presentations for that, we processed a large payroll today, and met on two massive system implementations that we are putting in enterprise systems for human capital management and then for our student systems. Tomorrow could be vastly different conversations.

Q:

Do you feel at all like you’re still getting settled into the job?

A:

Of course, there is so much to still learn, but I do feel like I’ve learned a lot already. I want to be impactful and add value. Part of that takes a ‘hit the ground running’ attitude. But, as a tribute to Penn, I remember in my first budget steering committee meeting, I was like, ‘I’m new, don’t say a word,’ and President Gutmann said, ‘What do you think MaryFrances?’ I was like, ‘Wow, what do I think?’ It’s been a very welcoming place to have people say, ‘I want to know what you think.’

Q:

What’s been your favorite part of working at universities?

A:

I love the mission. And here, with all the students and researchers, and with the hospital, I walk into meetings, ride the elevator with patients, see these missions right in front of my face. I never tire of it.

Q:

What do you like to do outside of work?

A:

I have three kids. I had two kids in my early 20s. Fast forward 18 years, with the same husband we had another baby when my first daughter was going to college. I’ve always been a working mother. I bike. I love flowers and I love to garden. I golf. I love decorating. I’m not a sitter. I have this artistic side I like to come out in different ways at home. Our family enjoys travel and we have been to some really interesting places.

Q:

What are you most excited for this year?

A:

I think in the whole area of Student Services, really taking that to the next level. If you’re a student right now, there are so many places you have to call to get information. If I said to students, ‘Tell me the difference between the Bursar, Registrar, and Financial Aid,’ many would not know. But they shouldn’t have to know that. If you have a question on anything student-related, I’d love for you to be able to call one place or visit with one person. But actually, what I would really love is for you to have tools to not have to call or come, that the website was so clear that it would be there for you. And if you did have to call, the person answering the phone was cross-trained in different disciplines, meaning 80 percent of those calls could be answered by that person on the phone. Then our financial aid counselors could focus on helping you work through financial aid issues solely.

Originally published on .