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Oliver’s gift: balancing dollars with dreams during tough times

Patsy Oliver
Patsy Oliver

Some people grow into their jobs, and eventually grow out of them when they have mastered the challenge.

Then there are people like Patsy Oliver who, one step at a time, amassed the experience and acumen necessary to tackle the job that literally fell into her lap nearly a decade ago. That job is assistant dean for finance and business operations for the School of Medicine.

It is a big job, and a demanding one, particularly in tough economic times when there is never enough money to meet the vision of leaders always eager to do more – both to advance research and extend medical care to the people of the state.

And she has done it well enough to be recognized with a 2010 C. Knox Massey Distinguished Service Award.

In their joint nominating letter, William Roper, dean of the School of Medicine and vice chancellor for medical affairs, along with Kevin Fitzgerald, executive associate dean for finance and administration, and Etta Pisano, former vice dean for academic affairs, said Oliver’s “consistently good nature” was evident as she tackled any issue, no matter its size, scope or complexity. Department chairs, center directors and business managers alike shared that view, they added.

Stepping stones

Oliver grew up in Elon and attended Elon University where she earned degrees in business and accounting in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Her father worked as an accountant at Western Electric in Burlington, but Oliver said it was not just her father’s influence that led her into the profession.

“All the way through school, I was much better at math than I was in English,” she said. “I was horrible in English.”

She went to work for a bank after graduating but got bored after only one year and quit to take a job in Carolina’s utilities department handling the billing for family and student housing. Soon after she arrived, she was convinced she had made a mistake.

“The first couple of months I was here they were still using punch cards and paper spreadsheets and I thought, ‘Oh gosh, what have I gotten myself into,’” Oliver said.

But it was exactly the right job at the time, she said, because she was still young and not yet set in her opinions about how things should be done – “except that we needed more computers to streamline some things.”

It was a small office where everyone had to learn everything, Oliver said.

She happily obliged.

That first job was the start of a long learning curve, and she came to realize that working at a university, with its intricate, complex nature, was exactly where she wanted to be. Each school, each department operated differently and needed specialized processes to run smoothly.

Oliver’s second job at Carolina was in what was then the newly formed controller’s office, which provided financial functions for students, faculty and staff.

One of the first things she learned was the precise way the University wrote financial reports. That was not part of her job, but the woman who wrote the reports was about to go on maternity leave, so Oliver lent a hand.

Her penchant for pitching in and her pattern of seeking new and bigger challenges continued from there. In 1992, she stepped into a newly created position to handle finance in the dean’s office for what is now the Gillings School of Global Public Health. There she learned from Ernie Schoenfeld the intricacies of financial management for a school versus central administration.

She stayed five years, followed by two years working on a software project for grant management.

Oliver joined the Department of Medical Administration as a systems accountant on Jan. 1, 2001. Six months later, she was essentially the interim assistant dean – with all the responsibilities she still has.

It began when the person who recruited her took a job back home in Kansas, and three other accounting co-workers took other jobs on campus. The medical school hired Michele Phillips as the new assistant dean, and she established a supportive environment that allowed Oliver to work on such projects as the EPA Web.

Oliver said Phillips proved to be a valuable mentor and challenged everyone in the office to look for and understand the value of each process they performed.

When Phillips was promoted to associate dean, Oliver became assistant dean. And when Phillips took a position at Wake Forest University, Pisano asked Oliver to take on the duties of both positions.

The prospect of taking on this challenge was not as daunting as one might imagine, partly because Oliver knew most of what it entailed. Fortunately, she said, she had David Perry, then senior associate dean of the medical school, to turn to for help in what she did not know.

More than just numbers

During the quarter-century Oliver has been at Carolina, she has learned that accounting is far more than simply adding numbers. It is also about figuring out how to make a system or process better. There is no one right way to do something, she said, but there are always smarter, more efficient ways.

In her current role, Oliver provides leadership and consultation in fiscal matters, handles financial accounting functions and implements cash management procedures so funds are available for capital projects and ongoing operating needs.

She keeps a school balance sheet and budget forecast that seeks to match the aspirations of academic leaders with available resources. At times, that means setting limits that force administrators to make hard choices when money is short.

“I think what I like about my job most of all is the sense that I am really helping,” Oliver said. “Faculty members are very good at juggling all the demands placed on them – teaching, research and patient care.

“But generally they do not have time for administrative tasks, and University finance is not their strength. I like to think that a big part of what I do is helping them with administrative and financial matters so they can do all the incredible things that I cannot do.”


Originally published by University Gazette: Aug. 11, 2010

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