RecRe Roundtable: Will Hurley of NACUBO

ยท by Griffin Harrington

I would like to introduce our next guest of the RecRe Roundtable, Will Hurley. Will is someone who has been instrumental in RecRe in that he showed us the ropes of what higher education can be, from a relationship perspective. RecRe started in 2021 and our first event where we got to meet higher ed officials with this RecRe thing in mind was Atlantic City, NACAS National. Will and I met while I was the photographer for the NACAS national conferences for two, three years before Covid. 

Once the RecRe idea came to be, and the focus shifted to universities, Will was there with advice on how to build a relationship, how to hold a relationship, and who are some of the key players in the higher ed space. Will is a great showcase of how important relationship building is in higher ed.

Griffin Harrington: 

What does the higher ed space look like now?

Will Hurley: 

Whether it was at NACAS or at NACUBO or one of the many other associations in higher education, even before the pandemic, though, I think the pandemic accelerated folks’ interests in doing so, it was always about collaboration. Director of Membership, Corey Salem, who now works over at Unique venues, had a really great saying that he told folks as they joined, that it was a collaborative competition. Because at the end of the day, if we’re both schools in Virginia, if I’m University of Richmond and you’re Virginia Commonwealth University and we are trying to attract students to come to our campus, at the end of the day, I really want them to come to my campus. And I’d be okay if they didn’t go to your campus because that means that’s a student I don’t have. But at the same time, a lot of folks in higher education, then and now, are very open to sharing what works for them, what’s not working for them. And they really do rely on each other to share best practices and brainstorm ideas on how to create the most value for their students.

Because what’s more scary than seeing your potential student go somewhere else, is seeing your potential student go nowhere, and just not go to higher ed in general. And that’s been happening a lot more lately. If you’ve talked to anyone who works in higher ed, they’ve probably shared that scary phrase, the enrollment cliff, and every year we creep a little bit closer to it. So the idea of this collaboration to keep schools being perceived as valuable to go to, is still really engaging. And sometimes that’s the academics and sometimes that’s the administration. And sometimes that’s really cool campus services like RecRe that you get to say, “Look at this great campus environment we offer students. It’s not just a place where you can grow and learn, but it’s a place where you can enjoy yourself.” Because students want to enjoy themselves. There is a lot of focus and interest on sharing.

And I would say my passion for sharing, collaborating, maybe what we’re doing today a little bit, really has been developed and grown through seeing so many people do it at these associations I’ve worked with. So I can’t say that I was initially this passionate and excited and enthusiastic about the area, but being around so many people that do it every day really did rub off on me quite a bit.

Griffin Harrington:

I think something that I’ve really noticed a lot by getting to know the higher ed space the last couple of months is how interesting the career path is for people that become leaders in this space. You’ve worked with hundreds of higher ed auxiliary leaders across the industry, small campuses, big campuses, medium campuses and everything in between, what through lines or what connective tissues have you seen that allow for the career trajectory of a successful higher ed individual?

Will Hurley:

So it really depends on where you want to sit at the school. So at NACUBO we work with a lot of controllers, we work for a lot of accountants, we work with a lot of grants managers, and of course we work with a lot of CFOs and chief business officers. These are all tracks that are, I’m not going to say easy to break into, but there is, as you said, a through arc where you understand, “If I want to be a CFO, I need to be a CPA. I need to learn accounting.” If you want to be a grants’ manager, you need to understand how endowments work and there’s a track for that. If you want to work in the business office, you probably need a business degree. And this all makes sense. There are other associations like NASPA, that is a student affairs association, where if you want to get into student affairs on a campus, there is a major that you can earn through grad school for that. Very simple through line, you have to do the education before you’re probably going to be considered at the table.

Auxiliary services are not that way. There is really no career arc to get there other than you have experience working at the campus. A lot of people will find their way by, they will have a managerial or maybe a director level position at the bookstore, or at print and mail, or in dining. And they will do that for long enough and they will collaborate with those around them and try to learn a little bit more about, “Okay, I’m in campus retail, but I’d love to know a little bit more about transportation. Because I know the next rung up the ladder oversees all of it, and all I know is this one thing.” So you really have to fight your way up for more responsibility over other areas. And for a while there really wasn’t much of an arc to get to that director of auxiliary services spot. I think some associations can help you with that arc by offering professional development resources you might not be able to find on your own campus.

NACAS has a certification, CASP, the Certified Auxiliary Services Professional exam that they offer. And that’s really catered for folks who aren’t at that level yet but want to be. So it helps them fill in knowledge gaps. It helps them really shore up some of their competencies that they’ll need to fit at that role. But unfortunately, it really depends on where you want to be at a school because some tracks are more established than others are.

Griffin Harrington:

Yeah, I think to that, especially in the NASPA world, the ACUI world and the NACAS world, I’ve noticed this, and maybe you can check me on this one, that if you’re a director of that level, I can almost guarantee that your last job was an associate director at that campus or a similar campus. And it’s very different from a lot of other industries. And maybe in the NACUBO world you can be a controller at a non-higher ed industry company and come over and be a controller in higher ed. I’ve noticed it to be very rare to jump in to be a director of a student union or a director of a student affairs organization and have your last job not be either the same level job somewhere else, or a just one rung under job at that same campus. Does that sit with you? Does that make sense that it’s such a vertically inclined industry?

Will Hurley:

It super is, for external candidates, I should say. So if you want to be the controller at University of Mary Washington, you had better have been a controller or an assistant controller at another higher ed institution. Most of the time when you see someone who sits from associate to vice president to just general president, it is a very established career arc. However, nowadays, we have seen a lot of individuals who have stayed past their retirement date. Chris Fulkerson at Elon University had been there and had continued to say, “Oh, just one more year.”

Griffin Harrington:

He just signed off. It’s a bummer. He was such a stalworth in the industry.

Will Hurley:

He really was, and I hope he listens to this. But he had stayed there past when he planned to because his school continued to ask him, because they knew they didn’t have a person in line to replace him yet. And when you have situations where you have a school that had furloughed a lot of people throughout the pandemic, and they didn’t really have a great success replacing them, and you have a lot of people who probably would’ve retired three years ago and are now taking their retirement, you have a lot of holes that need to be filled. 

A couple of months ago, I was speaking to a campus in Canada who was experiencing the same issue, and they had their entire ancillary services team pretty much all drop at once. And they needed a director and they needed that director to know something about the industry. And they were going to take their coordinators and managers and pretty much hire people who had no experience because they had gone through rounds of hiring, no one had applied.

They had gone through more, they didn’t see qualified candidates, so you gotta start somewhere. So they started asking around the school, and this was someone who’s going to be responsible for their dining, their bookstore, their transportation, their vending, their residence life, pretty much everything. And the only person they could find internally was the guy who was running the campus card office, and wasn’t even the one who was out there distributing the meal swipe cards. He wasn’t the one setting them up in a banner. He just knew the technology behind the system. And that was the closest they could find as someone who knew ancillary services. So pre 2020, yeah, you were exactly right. Nowadays, schools have become a little bit more flexible because they’ve had to be more flexible.

And again, that’s where this environment of collaboration and sharing is so important, because you have people coming to these associations like ACUI or NASPA and NACUBO or what have you, and they really just don’t have the traditional experience. And they’re looking for the person who hasn’t yet retired and has been doing this for 20 to 30 years to say, “I’m pretty new at this. What do you make of X, Y, Z? I’m looking for a vendor who can do this. Do you know of anybody? This on campus, this process is not working for us. What do you all do somewhere else?” And it really has kind of forced the issue that people are sharing, I think a lot more frequently than they might have needed to in the past.

Griffin Harrington:

I want you to get into the head of an aspiring leader real quick, like someone who’s starting their career in higher ed and might be a couple of years in. What you just said, about how many very experienced individuals are still at the helm of lots of these schools. What they have is decades of institutional experience, of institutional knowledge that is so important to try to hold onto, but like you’re saying, the great resignation of last year cut out a lot of people in the middle. There were a lot of people who left the industry. If you were an aspiring leader who wanted to find a way to rise through higher education on the campus side, what are some questions, and how would you tap into all the knowledge that’s out there with all these individuals who have had 20, 30, 40 years of experience on college campuses? What would you look to get out of them, and share some of the knowledge that they’ve built over the last couple of decades?

Will Hurley:

You can get this information through questioning folks who are still at the institution. So to maybe answer your question with a slightly different answer than you might have planned on, the number one thing I can recommend for folks who are in higher education and looking to make a name for themselves and advance a little bit further is, you have to understand innovative technology. We are in an environment where the student demographics who are both within the campus right now, as well as all of those who are entering campus, they’re going to be expecting a lot more than our cohort did. We were pretty happy to just show up in a room and someone talk to us for 45 minutes. That’s not really the case anymore. And it applies to everything, from delivery style of education, how food and books are distributed on campus, as well as how tuition is being paid and how that’s being communicated.

And a lot of campuses, for good reason, because they didn’t need to adapt for a while, and then they couldn’t really find time to adapt because for the past few years they have found themselves at a place that is technologically not quite matching the needs of students. And this creates a feeling of, is this an archaic institution? With this new demographic, do they really need to care about it? Is there a really proven track record that this is going to overall increase the success of these students? And I work in higher ed, obviously I believe that it does, but it’s about sharing that message and sharing that communication. And if you are sitting anywhere at a school, it is more often than not, your technology that lies behind what you’re doing is probably a little bit archaic. And that’s an okay reality.

But what matters is being able to improve that. So asking important questions of, what are our processes for how we interact with students? Whether I’m in admissions, whether I’m in dining, whether I’m in the union, how can we increase that and be more effective through the use of technology, whether it’s increasing our social media awareness? A lot of campuses have had to pivot really quickly to that, related to student needs, whether it be food insecurity or housing insecurity or even transportation insecurity, that has really been compounded through the pandemic. And a lot of schools were not able to reach students that had those issues. And by increasing their use of social media and technologically reaching those students, a lot of them have been able to protect vulnerable populations who they might not have been able to in previous years. Or maybe you’re working in admissions and you’re now dealing with international students more often than ever.

And for many countries, the visa process is still very complicated and very confusing, and you need to be able to reach and help those students when maybe in previous years it was a little bit easier. So regardless of what area you’re in, your technology needs to be not only improved and well implemented, but your understanding of it needs to be second to none. And that’s going to go very far for you in the long run, because again, with this middle cohort really cut out over the past few years, you have a lot of very young, very digitally native people who are entering higher ed as workers. And traditionally the folks at the top aren’t as familiar with the options that are out there, and you need to be a resource for bringing those to the table.

Griffin Harrington:

Finally, you’ve had the opportunity to speak with hundreds of campus officials, you’ve got to know so many of these leaders on campus, and you’ve been to so many association conferences that you sit in the Ed sessions, you understand what’s going on, you see what’s coming. In your wildest dreams, what does the campus of 2030 look like? What are some of the defining traits? What does a student expect when they walk onto campus in 2030?

Will Hurley:

Ooh, that’s a really tough question. The campus of the future in 2030 generally, I think, needs to be much better at communicating the school’s mission, vision, values, to the student. I was working at NACAS for a while, on the NACAS Foundation, I have been a part of an inter-association wellbeing task force between NIRSA and NASPA and ACUI and NACAS and ACUHO-I and a zillion others, and one of the things that we realized very quickly is that there are a lot of vulnerable populations in higher ed, and that could be someone who just doesn’t have a place to live, doesn’t have enough to eat, doesn’t know if they’re going to be able to afford the next semester because they’re not sure how their scholarships work. And the school doesn’t really have a great way of identifying those students. And if you can’t identify them, how are you supposed to help them?

And the school wants to help them, but it’s just very hard to communicate what’s needed and how you can fix that, especially with some of these populations that don’t always spend a lot of time on campus, because they don’t feel like there is a space to be there on campus. So whether it be someone who is on a Pell Grant and they don’t understand what’s being covered and what’s not being covered, or it’s a student who might be a commuter student and not really be sure of what they’re eligible to participate in on campus life and what they’re not, compared to a traditional, “I’m in the dorm, freshman, and I’m just really existing on this couple of square miles of my local community college.” I would love to see greater communication and transparency between schools. And I would also, in the same vein, really like to see, in my campus of the future, it being more all-encompassing, all-in-one, for students to really feel like this is their mini city on a campus and pretty much everything they need is right there.

I know to a degree you have to have the local grocery store. You can’t expect the school to really stock literally everything for you. But even things as small as having a functional print center for students to print out their new car insurance card because theirs just expired and they need to get a new one, to things like RecRe, where if I want to play tennis on campus, I don’t want to have to go to Dick’s Sporting Goods and catch a bus to go there and then back, I would like that to just be on campus for me right then and there. And seeing those small touches for students, to really make it feel more like a living learning community rather than just, “Here’s room and a board and a place to eat. And then you can find your enjoyment somewhere else.”

I acknowledge that there are always going to be great places to live and enjoy yourself off campus, but investing in the campus experience without necessarily having to raise tuition by a ton, is a great way of, I think, really transitioning more to that living learning community that I’d love to see.

Griffin Harrington:

It sounds like the Jetsons.

Will Hurley:

Yeah, right!

Griffin Harrington:

Will, thank you so much for the time. Thank you for joining us on this V1 of what the RecRe Roundtable hopefully will become. Your voice’s been so important to RecRe as we’ve grown, and we’re excited to stay close. 

Will Hurley:

Thank you, Griffin. And anytime you want to invite me back, I’m very happy to be here.

Background about Will Hurley: 

Will has been in higher education since pretty much the second he got into higher ed as a student. He started as a student worker at a Sodexo concept at the University of Mary Washington, deepening his relationship with Sodexo from 2012 to 2015. Will knows the importance of dining centers at universities because that is where a lot of the students gather through dining and social activities. 

After Will graduated, he bounced around parts of Virginia and found an opening at the National Association of College Auxiliary Services (NACAS) which really focuses on all of the auxiliary service areas, though food is a pretty huge one. 

Will found a great fit for himself at NACAS in 2017 by understanding the similarity between types of work that NACAS members perform, and what Will was doing during his undergrad years. From 2020 to 2022 he shifted over to the National Association of College University Business Officers (NACUBO), which is where he still currently works. Will has found that there is some overlap between dining services, but he is happy to experience a bit of a different world at NACUBO.

Interested in participating in our RecRe Roundtable series? Email