“You know, it’s funny. I’ve been told I’m a little bit of a unique case,” Board of Trustee member Rebecca Graham laughed as she explained her enthusiasm for analyzing Pacific University’s finances and investments.
Graham is serving her eighth year as a member of the Pacific University Board of Trustee’s and is the first to be highlighted in a series profiling board members. She has served on the Investment committee, Finance committee and is making her transition over to the Student Life committee.
Graham is the first Board of Trustee member to be profiled in a series of feature articles about the members that make up the Board of Trustees, their roles and visions for the College of Arts and Sciences.
As Graham held up her cell phone case, collaged with photos of her 12-year-old bull terrier Harley and animatedly explained her obsession over dogs, jokes and people, she did not seem to fit the typical ‘financer’ mold.
“When you think of an auditor, you probably don’t think of me,” Graham said. “I like numbers, it makes sense to me. But auditing is very much a people business and interacting with people is my favorite part of the job.”
While Graham brought her bubbly personality along with her, she was recruited to the board because of her financial expertise.
Graham had a unique journey to the board; she served as Pacific University’s auditor for eight years before she decided to leave her firm and start her own financial consulting business. When she left her firm, she said former President Phil Creighton approached her and asked her to serve on the board.
“I thought he was joking at first!” Graham said. “But sure enough, a few months later he followed up and here I am. I think they were looking for that financial expertise and someone who knew Pacific in a different way.”
Between her auditing experience and her time on the Board, Graham has spent 16 years with the university.
“I love that [college] is so much broader than the financials,” Graham said. “I would look at things from an auditor’s perspective and not understand why they did certain things but being in it, you see why they make decisions and really understand and appreciate it.”
Graham said there is a push and pull relationship between providing a liberal arts education and maximizing a business financial model and, while it can be difficult to balance the two, she has a simple way of looking at the task.
“To me it comes back to: who is our customer and what do they want?” Graham said. “It’s not about money and giving up a liberal arts education but rather is about staying relevant to students and parents and providing value.”
When asked how the board keeps the university relevant, Graham laughingly joked, “beats me!”
Graham said a part of the ability to stay relevant is being okay with change. She said she has seen a movement to look at things as more of a cost benefit and, while change is always hard and is never cut and dry, she supports that movement.
“My observation has been that academia doesn’t move very fast and the world is moving pretty fast right now,” Graham said. “We shouldn’t be continuing on with programs just because we’ve always had them, especially if now they are obsolete or students aren’t really interested anymore.”
With the push-pull balance between academia and business models, Graham said she thinks the balanced make-up of the board is really helpful. She said the board is made up of some very successful strict business people and some people
deeply rooted in academia.
When Graham served as the chair of the finance committee and on the investment committee, she said a simple description of her job was to keep tuition increases as low as possible while maximizing investments and budget allocations, with the help of Vice President of Finance Mike Mallory.
Graham is one of the few local board members. When she is not crunching numbers, Graham runs a small business- consulting firm in the Sellwood neighborhood of Portland.
After working for almost 28 years for her accounting firm, Graham went out on a limb and started her business, helping small business owners make sure they are maximizing choices on the finance side.
She has served on several non-profit boards in addition to the Pacific University board.
Graham and her partner moved to Sellwood from West Linn a year ago to escape suburb life and the freeway. She said she spends a lot of her time walking Harley around the Sellwood area.
Graham proclaimed herself as a ‘huge dog person’ and recounted one of her favorite stories in public accounting, telling coworkers she had a Harley (referencing her dog) and watching them think she had a motorcycle.
“I’ve had Harley since he was a puppy. Sellwood is so great because I can walk him all over the place,” she said.
Her favorite part about being on the board though is interacting with the students.
Graham said the value of being on the board is seeing how her work affects students and being able to meet the people that make her job worth it.
“It can get boring looking at graphs and numbers all day. It’s so good to actually see why we are doing this!” Graham said.
On the note of student interaction, Graham said she is excited to explore how she can make herself more available to students and their input, whether that is through attending student forums in the time between her committee meetings or setting up times to meet with student groups.