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Doing the math: University's CFO is not your typical financial suit

February 16, 2012
by Savannah King

Consider the stereotypical portrait of an accountant: a stuffy, dour person with whom you interact only when you don't want to do the math yourself.

The CFO in April 2010 with sons Chad (right) and Troy overlooking the Canyonlands near Moab.<br />(Cover photo: Dave and Lynn Johnson.)Now meet Lynn Johnson, chief financial officer and associate vice president for Finance in the Division of University Operations. She rides dirt bikes and Harleys with her husband and two sons, makes you comfortable when you talk with her, and explains CSU’s budget in ways that catch your interest enough to do the math yourself.

Long and winding road

However, Johnson certainly didn’t start out in a top financial position at a big university. She began as one of seven children in a family where no one had gone to college. In fact, at first she had no intention of going, either – after high school, she decided to go to cosmetology school.

Turned out that it wasn't the right road for her. She had to abandon her cosmetology training when she discovered she was allergic to the products she was using.

Instead of cosmetology, Johnson went on to work at a car dealership, where the seed for attending college was planted. Part of Johnson’s job was to take cars for test drives, and on one of these tests, she brought along a colleague named Noah.

It also happened that on this particular test drive, they stopped at the library. Noah picked up a book that detailed the potential earnings of someone who went to college and showed it to Johnson. From then on, she was hooked.

Academic life wins

She decided to put herself through school and enrolled first at a junior college, where she credits an excellent math professor with pushing her toward a math-based major. In ninth grade, Johnson had been at the top of her class in math, but in college she had to take remedial math courses to supplement her lost academic time.

But she took the professor’s advice, and by the time she graduated from her second college – the University of Texas-Arlington – she had a Bachelor of Science degree in accounting.

After graduating, Johnson spent seven years at a top accounting firm before taking a job at the AMC Cancer Research Center, a non-profit campus that was started on land donated by CSU alumni in the Robinson Dairy family.

When the research center eventually shut down, Johnson got the offer from CSU in 2003 to be director of Sponsored Programs. While in this position, she helped implement the Kuali System, the first financial system specifically tailored to higher education institutions.

Much more than punching numbers

Now after five years, she is CFO of University Operations, but she doesn’t just oversee the university’s financial processes. She feels it’s important to present the CSU budget with all due transparency to the public and university communities.

Johnson’s actions back up her words – she also serves as one of two advisors to the Student Fee Review Board, an Associated Students of CSU organization where students can  learn about and provide feedback on student fees. Students on the board directly influence the decisions made by administrators, directors and the Board of Governors in regard to campus services provided through fee-funded areas.

“CSU is a very unique school in how we approach these things,” Johnson said, adding that she actively encourages students to join the Student Fee Review Board.

Considering the massive budget cuts to higher education and the delicate balance that CSU must strike between state funding and the funds it must raise, it’s important to have someone who represents a financial organization that adroitly treads that fine line.

And although the staff in University Operations might not ride dirt bikes or Harleys, they still are outside the confines of stereotypes – and will gladly tread that line as they do the math of the university.