James Brigham firmly believes that good work creates opportunity. At Jacksonville State University (JSU), his work in accounting and administration creates innumerable opportunities for the university’s nine thousand students. And that’s what Brigham enjoys most about his role as chief financial officer and vice president of finance and administration—being able to leverage his expertise to make the campus a better place for its students.
Profile spoke with Brigham about his transition from the industrial sector to higher education, his goals and priorities as one of the university’s financial leaders, and the school’s remarkable recovery after being hit by a tornado in March 2018.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey in finance and administration?
I think one of the biggest advantages I’ve had goes back to when I was in school—I had an excellent advisor. When I came back from the military, he took me under his wing. My major was in business administration, but he took me aside and said that I should think about majoring in comprehensive public accounting, that the opportunities I would get through that major would go far beyond what I’d get with a business administration degree.
After graduating, I was fortunate to join one of the big eight public accounting firms. When I look back on what had an impact on my success, more than anything else it was those experiences in public accounting. Public accounting firms do an excellent job of creating and giving their employees continuing education while also focusing on the concept of excellent customer service.
And what made you decide to move to Jacksonville State University after working in the private sector for so long?
I got a call from the assistant dean of the business school at JSU, who said she was interested in talking to me about their top internal audit job. I was on my way to a speaking engagement in Orlando for a national conference, and I told her I would stop in Jacksonville on the way and meet with her. And I could tell she was smiling through the phone as she said, “You understand that this is Jacksonville, Alabama, and not Jacksonville, Florida, right?”
I had never even heard of Jacksonville, Alabama, but I loved the campus as soon as I saw it. My first impression was actually that it looked like Faber College in Animal House. I was so impressed with the buildings, the beautiful campus, and all the people I talked to.
What have you enjoyed most about your role at JSU?
Being around the students is a breath of fresh air. My main responsibility is to head up the finance and administration function, but I also try to be an advisor to the business students. I tell them what employers look for and how they can make themselves stand out from other candidates. It’s amazing to be around these young people and to help them through processes that will prepare them for the rest of their lives.
We call ourselves the friendliest campus in the South, and I think the university does an excellent job of treating each student as an individual, understanding their needs, and trying to help them be successful.
So how does your position enable you to drive success for the university’s students?
Quite frankly, when you look at the rising costs of higher education these days, you have to be focused on trying to keep accessibility high and the cost to students as low as you possibly can. Universities in general do not do a good job of cost control, and most faculty members are more focused on the quality of education, research, and classroom environments than on the bottom line. What I bring to the campus is an outside private industry perspective of understanding productivity. Each of our six schools is operated as an independent business. We’re not looking to make a profit, but we would like to break even.
As CFO, I also oversee financial aid. That has given me an appreciation for what families have to do to put their sons and daughters through college. I’ve had students visit me almost every day because we care about them and take care of them.
That’s wonderful to hear. It must be challenging at times to take care of students, though. What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced during your tenure at the university?
JSU was hit by a tornado on March 19, 2018, when I was sitting at home with my wife. Fifty out of the seventy buildings on campus were damaged, two of them beyond repair. But the silver lining was that the tornado hit campus during spring break, when all the students were gone. We would have had a devastating loss of life if not for that, but we actually had no injuries whatsoever. We are very fortunate, and those hard times have helped bring people together.
Another good thing, from a capital facilities perspective, is that prior to the tornado, we probably had somewhere between $35 and $40 million of maintenance required for our buildings. The vast majority of that is unnecessary now. At this point we are 90 percent recovered, and we seem to be in good shape moving forward.