Heller drawn by higher ed’s mission, UW-Madison’s reputation
New Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration Laurent Heller took an unusual route to a career in higher education administration.
Heller still hadn’t finished his bachelor’s degree when he was hired to be the chief financial officer at the University of California, Berkeley’s law school.
“I was lucky to work for some very smart people who were willing to give me opportunities,” he said in a recent interview in his office in Bascom Hall.
“I do think I’m a great example of what public higher ed can do for people, both from a career perspective and from an educational perspective,” Heller said.
Heller took over on Aug. 15 for Michael Lehman, who served in an interim role after Darrell Bazzell left in March for a leadership position at the University of Texas at Austin. Bazzell had served as UW–Madison’s chief financial and administrative officer since 2003.
Heller told us about his nontraditional college career, why he was drawn to higher education, what he views as the challenges and opportunities facing UW–Madison, and what his interests are outside the office.
Q: Tell us about your personal background. Where did you grow up and go to college?
A: I was born in Lawrence, Kansas. My parents went to KU (the University of Kansas) and met there. Actually, my great uncle was provost there back in the late ’60s. I lived in Kansas until I was two and then moved to Omaha, and lived there for grade school. So I’m a Midwestern kid at heart and am feeling good to be back in the region.
After Omaha, my family moved to Houston, where I went to middle school and high school. From there I went to Colorado, where I started college at CU-Boulder but didn’t finish, actually. I lived in Boulder and Denver for a while, then ended up moving to Boston. That’s where I got into higher education, working at Harvard.
Q: So did you receive your undergraduate degree from Harvard?
A: No, undergrad came later. I’m a nontraditional student. I went to undergrad while I worked at UC Berkeley. I was CFO of the law school and attending Berkeley full-time; got my BA in economics in 2011.
Q: You were hired as CFO of the law school prior to finishing your bachelor’s?
A: Yes. As it turns out, I was lucky to work for some very smart people who were willing to give me opportunities.
I got my start in higher ed at Harvard as a temp, and eventually got a job as a database analyst there. I was always good with computers and I was fortunate to get hired on in a career position, part of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers. And in that job I ended up getting into finance working in a civil rights research program. I met some amazing people, had some great opportunities and learned a lot, and my boss there became the dean of the School of Law at Berkeley. He offered me a job to come out there and do strategy work for him.
Q: You’re coming into a job where you will be the chief business officer at a major institution. What in your background has prepared you for that job?
A: I have more than 15 years of experience in higher education finance at this point. I’ve worked at all levels in higher ed and in finance roles, from being a research administrator and budgeter in a research program within a school to being the CFO of a school to being budget director for UC Berkeley and assistant vice chancellor for financial planning and analysis there. So I’ve managed budgets from $50,000 research grants to $4 million research centers, to $70 million schools, to $2.5 billion a year for the operating budget at UC Berkeley. I think having that perspective of how it works at all different levels of a university environment is useful.
Q: Was there something initially that brought you to higher education as a career path?
A: I was drawn to the mission. I do think I’m a great example of what public higher ed can do for people, both from a career perspective and from an educational perspective. The thing public higher education brings is leveraging all the amazing work that a research university does to really make a difference for the people of your state, and more broadly the world. That really motivates me.
Specifically, what really drew me in was the opportunity to work at the Civil Rights Project, which was a research center in Harvard Law School and Education School. I had been working in biotech before and that was really cool; I learned a lot setting up enterprise systems for a small biotech manufacturer. I learned all about supply chain management and inventory and cost accounting. So that was all well and good but it didn’t motivate me at the end of the day. So the opportunity to use my skills in ways that might help move a social justice issue that I care deeply about totally hooked me.
And I would say that broader environment of higher ed helped to keep me going — you meet such interesting people. It doesn’t matter what role they fill in the campus community, everybody’s got a great story.
Q: What was it about this university that attracted you?
A: I would say Wisconsin’s reputation as a world-leading public research, teaching and public service university is very attractive. I really am committed to that public aspect of higher ed. I’ve been at the privates; it’s not the same, it doesn’t feel the same. The publics’ mission of promoting upward mobility, social mobility and doing it in an inclusive and collaborative way really draws me. Wisconsin is one of the great public universities in the world so I’m really honored to have the chance to help contribute here.
Then beyond that, I was also very impressed with the interview process here. I think it says a lot about the university. I met with, I don’t even know, 100-plus people including representatives of all the shared governance groups. I had an open public presentation to the campus. That says a lot to me about the DNA of this place and the fact that it means we’re not just saying we care about shared governance and inclusivity. I can tell this place really means it. Meeting with the chancellor and provost and other senior leaders was really impressive. Chancellor Blank is amazing, Provost Mangelsdorf, too. So, I just really think it’s a great opportunity to contribute at a place that really matters.
Q: As you get started, what have you identified as the early challenges and opportunities?
A: An obvious thing is that the state budget process is getting underway and we’re teeing things up with our colleagues in the system and state government to set the budget for the next couple of years. That’s really crucial. So I think learning everything I can so that I can help position us to tell the best story we can, about the value of this university and everything we do, to our various constituencies.
Secondly, I just have a lot to learn. This is a large, complex university and I will be spending a lot of time listening and meeting with folks, learning about all the different viewpoints and perspectives folks have on the university.
Q: The budget challenges are not unique to Wisconsin. I think you’ve seen them all across the higher ed landscape. From what you’ve seen from your vantage point at other universities, what is your impression of how that’s been handled, and what are your ideas for how it could be better handled here?
A: Unfortunately, we do see similar financial challenges and threats to our funding model throughout public higher education. There is a global trend toward decreasing public support for higher education and I think universities are doing a lot of work to try and make the case and tell their story about why it’s wise for states and the federal government to invest in higher education. But we also have to do what we can to look after ourselves, too, so that we’ll be in a better position to fulfill our mission regardless of whatever the state is able to give us.
So the one big thing universities have been doing is diversifying revenue streams, finding new ideas that could return a positive margin that we can reinvest for the people of our state, to support our public mission. I don’t want to get specific about what might work here at UW–Madison yet, but I do know that Chancellor Blank and Provost Mangelsdorf are also really focused on this idea. I really need to learn more and talk to folks about ideas that might work here and what would resonate with our academic values and public mission.
Q: I imagine that will be a major part of your first 100 days. What else have you got on your agenda?
A: Well, listen, listen, and listen some more is right at the top. On my first day I was honored to lead the first meeting of the year for the University Staff Congress so I got to see shared governance in action there.
I am also meeting, of course, with leadership and staff from all the various units in my portfolio. It’s a broad group of units, a lot of folks. So I’ll just be coming up to speed and learning how I can help them continue to succeed.
Q: What are your interests outside of work? Do you have any hobbies you like to pursue?
A: One thing I’m somewhat obsessed with is motorcycles and riding. I’ve got a couple bikes and they both made the trip out here to Madison. So I’ve been exploring the roads and I’ve already had to explore the towing services around here. One of my motorcycles broke down between two cornfields south of Verona. So I’m already getting some experience there.
Other things I’m into: I’m kind of a frustrated musician and I’ve always been super-obsessed with music. So whether that’s going to concerts, or collecting vinyl LPs, you’ll probably see me around town pursuing my musical interests.