April 26, 2012 — Back in 2001, while she was being recruited to become the University of Virginia's first vice president for finance, Yoke San Reynolds asked then Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Leonard Sandridge, her prospective boss, what her immediate priorities would be.
Sandridge listed two: completing the migration to the Oracle financial system and negotiating facilities and administration rates for federal grants and contracts.
"Been there, done that," Reynolds thought to herself. After years of university financial management – at the State University of New York and Cornell University – she considered those tasks less than exciting.
But then she realized that, unlike in her previous jobs, where she managed only one piece of the financial puzzle – like payroll or student billings or sponsored programs accounting – at U.Va. she would be overseeing an entire process, "cradle to grave," as she puts it. "It was a challenge and an opportunity," she said.
Now, after nearly 11 years of steering U.Va. through some of the choppiest financial waters in recent memory, Reynolds, 68, will retire at the end of the current academic year. Looking back, she can see how she shaped the job – and how the job shaped her.
Reynolds' accomplishments are widely acknowledged. In 2002, she instituted a treasury function and internal capital bank at U.Va., allowing schools and units to borrow money at attractive rates for their projects and then pay it back to the University. She also championed legislation to allow the University to invest in a broader range of instruments to obtain better returns. John T. Casteen III, who was president during most of Reynolds' tenure, said her actions helped "ensure adequate liquidity to cover capital and operating expenses in the face of tightening credit and liquidity in capital markets."
She led an initiative to sell $250 million in University debt under advantageous terms through the federal Build America Bond program – one of the first forays into the taxable bond market by a university. The money helped to finance $800 million in University construction projects, and the bonds are saving the University $2 million annually in interest over 30 years, compared with traditional tax-exempt bonds.
On her watch, the University has maintained its coveted "triple-triple" – triple-A bond ratings from all three ratings agencies – for nine consecutive years, no mean feat during the severest economic downturn since the Great Depression.
John O. Wynne, former University rector, said Reynolds' exceptional leadership, knowledge and oversight led to many tangible results. For example, the debt portfolio program generated enough savings to allow the extraction of more than $40 million to fill the funding gap for two new buildings: the College of Arts & Sciences Physical and Life Sciences Research Building and the Engineering School's Rice Hall Information Technology Engineering Building.
"These actions have had a direct and significant impact on the core academic enterprise of the University," Wynne said.
President Teresa A. Sullivan also said Reynolds' work has benefited students and faculty. "She has been relentless in squeezing costs out," Sullivan said. "When you squeeze a dollar out from the operational side, that's a dollar you can use on the academic side."
And as to that facilities and administration rate – F&A as it's known – Reynolds has worked with her staff to successfully negotiate increases with the federal government. The rate had been 48 percent when she arrived, but she persuaded the feds that U.Va.'s financial structure more resembled private institutions, which typically have higher rates. The University's F&A rate increased to 52 percent in 2003, and starting July 1, it will be 58 percent. Between 2003 and 2011, $24 million of additional F&A cost recoveries can be attributed to rate increases.
Reynolds was recognized with the 2009 Distinguished Business Officer award from the National Association of College and University Business Officers.
Michael Strine, executive vice president and chief operating officer, said a national search will be conducted for her successor "given the importance of this role."
"Yoke San's leadership has left an indelible mark on the University. We will miss her daily leadership, wise counsel and collegiality," he said. "When I was being recruited to the University, Yoke San's presence and national reputation were among the things that gave me great confidence in the leadership and what I would find here."
Beyond those achievements, Reynolds said she is proud of how she encouraged her departments to become more proactive, to seize opportunities to tell the University's story even while fulfilling government reporting requirements.
One such opportunity came in 2009-2010, when Congress tasked the Government Accountability Office with studying university endowments. U.Va. happened to be one of the first schools visited, and because of her experience with financial statement differences for private and public universities, Reynolds was able to suggest a measurement that was applicable for both. That was the measure that GAO ultimately used for all 10 universities it studied.
As to how the job shaped her, Reynolds said she had anticipated U.Va.'s culture wouldn't be much different from Cornell's: About the same size enrollment and student mix, similar size budget, a decentralized structure, a mix of public and private funding.
"But I was from New York," she said. "I had to learn to be more patient."
The corner of U.Va. that Reynolds oversees also includes Business Operations (such as dining and housing), Student Financial Services including Financial Aid, the Office of Sponsored Programs, Risk Management and the Policy Office – necessary and vexingly complicated operations. That complexity doesn't help higher education make its case to legislators and the public, she said.
"Higher education critics have simple messages," she said. "Our answers are so complex, and we always are saying, 'It depends…'"
If she could, she would convey three main messages about higher education funding and tuition. "One of the ways I would try to turn the conversation around is to talk more about net price, after financial aid is applied, and not gross price," she said. "It's the net price that is important to our students in their enrollment decisions, and it's the net revenue that affects the university's budget."
Second: endowments. "Donors who give money don't say, 'It's unrestricted, spend as you want.' They want to have it spent on a pet project, something they care deeply about," Reynolds said. "You can't use it to reduce tuition if you have to spend it, for example, on cancer research."
And finally: "You'd think it would be obvious, but the reason U.Va. and other public institutions are increasing their tuition is to make up for the reduction in state support. And when the conversation focuses on the percentage of tuition increases, the public tends to forget that we are starting from a lower base than private universities."
Reynolds is known for her ability to explain such complex financial concepts and problems. Her affinity with numbers goes back to high school in Singapore, and she was encouraged to attend college by her mother, whose own college aspirations were interrupted by World War II. The oldest of four children and the first to attend college, Reynolds went to the University of Singapore. "Singapore at the time was moving from being a British colony to independence and with that came the feeling of the world is wide open," she said.
There she found economics interesting because it applied mathematical concepts. After graduating, she earned a master's in economics from the University of Michigan (where she met her husband Bruce in an advanced micro-economics class) and in accounting and information systems at the State University of New York at Albany.
Despite her love for complicated equations and mathematical intrigue, Reynolds is not just about numbers. People also matter to her, said Gary Nimax, assistant vice president for finance, who has worked with Reynolds for eight years.
"Yoke San sets a great example for how someone can excel in their professional life, without losing sight of the importance of family and personal interests," he said. "I’ve learned so much from her, about work and about life in general."
The importance of family influenced the decision by Reynolds and her husband, U.Va. economics professor Bruce Reynolds, to retire. They will divide their time between his family farm in Wisconsin (definitely a summertime pursuit) and Montgomery County, Md., near Washington, D.C., where their daughter, son-in-law and two granddaughters, ages 5 and 8, live.
"It's a great age," she said of the girls. "This is the time we can have the most impact on them."