You could say that Odessa College Vice President for Business Affairs Virginia Chisum has splendid timing.
Thirty-four years ago, Chisum was working for Gibson’s discount store in Odessa when it was bought out by the Furr brothers in Lubbock.
She recalled that everyone was called into a big meeting one morning to say that Gibson’s had been sold and they would be consolidating with all Furr’s corporate offices in Lubbock. Some would be offered a chance to transfer to Lubbock, but others wouldn’t.
“It came as a big surprise to everybody. We all just kind of wandered back to our desks. I got back to my desk and there was a note. Someone had called while I was in the meeting,” Chisum said.
It was the assistant controller at OC who Chisum said she hadn’t spoken to in years. The OC official and her husband were moving to Alaska, but she was told she had to find someone to replace her and the person she thought of was Chisum.
If she had received the message the day before, Chisum said she would have said thanks, but no thanks.
“… But the timing was perfect. I interviewed here the next day and the rest is history,” Chisum said.
Now she is retiring and she and her husband, Doug, are moving to the Dallas area.
Back when the Gibson’s-Furr’s consolidation was going on, Chisum said she and Doug, didn’t want to move. Doug had just started a business, Cutting Edge Advertising, and they had two small children and family in Odessa.
When she started at OC, Chisum was director of business systems.
“That was in 1994 when we had the derivative crisis. The vice president for business affairs at the time was Roger Coomer. Those were very, very interesting times; scary times. We almost closed the doors then. I’ll never forget, it was on my birthday. Doug and I share the same birthday. It was spring break. We were on our way over to Midland to go eat and I get a phone call from Phil Speegle, the president here at the time. … This was on a Saturday. He said can you meet me here down at the college I need to ask a favor. So I said OK,” Chisum said.
Speegle was in the parking lot with Richard Buck, the college’s attorney.
“I’m thinking, this is not good. He said yesterday, which was the last day before we broke for spring break, Roger Coomer came to me and told me that all of our investments are underwater. They’re illiquid and everything we have is tied up in those investments, even payroll … We had no cash in the bank that was not invested in mortgage-backed securities and derivatives. Within a period of about three weeks, they had gone from making us millions of dollars every year in investment income to being totally illiquid because of the change in interest rates and the type of derivatives they were,” she said.
“It was an ill-advised investment strategy. So he said you’re going to figure a way out of this; you’re going to have to fire me; and he left town for spring break.
So Phil asked me if I could get into his (Coomer’s) computer …” Chisum said.
Coomer resigned and that’s when she moved into the vice president for business affairs position.
“Literally back in ’94, we almost had to shut the doors. We struggled every month just to keep the lights on and the payroll. I’ll never forget, Clay Wood, who was the president of Western National (Bank) at the time, he came to us after this all became public. There were grand jury investigations it was awful. And we were suing the investment companies and the investment companies were suing the college.”
“Clay Wood came forward and offered us, I think it was a $7 million line of credit. That’s how we operated the rest of that year, plus we had a $5 million tax anticipation note (short-term financing) … that was due that summer with no way to pay it without selling a whole bunch of investments and taking a huge loss on them,” Chisum said.
Chisum said she lived in the office during that time.
“I mean there were many nights I never went home. We were working with investment bankers out of San Antonio, Dallas and bond counsel and Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s up in New York City. We’d be on the phone with lawyers. We had to restructure everything, so I learned a whole lot about public financing and how to restructure debt,” she said.
The state investment pool was in its infancy at the time.
“We had financial advisor who worked with us on our bonds, but Roger was really the expert. … He was a very in-demand speaker all over the country to come and teach others how to do it. … They felt like he was the investment golden child,” Chisum said.
Looking back, she said, that was one of the best things that could have happened to the college because it had a lot of investment income and didn’t have to worry about having high quality instruction.
“… We weren’t that concerned about the college going rate, getting more people in college back then. It was (a lot) less student centered. It was more faculty centered …,” she said.
And it changed the focus of the college.
Vance Gipson came in as president at the time and had to make some difficult decisions, Chisum said.
“We structured two or three early retirement plans to reduce our workforce and that sort of thing without ever having to lay anybody off,” she said.
It took a while to get out from under the crisis. And everybody that was left had to pull together. There was a period of about four or five years where there were no raises and faculty had to take on more work.
“There’s a number of us who remember those days.
We’ve had a couple of those big financial crisis that have been so good for the college. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” She said.
There was another instance on Jan. 18, 2011. The legislative session had just started and OC had just passed a $68.5 million bond issue the previous November. People said the bond wouldn’t pass, but it did.
Chisum said OC had gone through a rebranding effort and had community focus groups to help determine the future of the college.
“We were feeling on top of the world. We were about to go sell these bonds and so that’s I’d been working on. There’s a lot of financial stuff you have to get ready to offer the bonds for sale,” Chisum said.
Then President Gregory Williams got a call from former State Rep. Tryon Lewis.
Williams called a meeting and said there were four colleges that were going to be for de-funding by the state legislature and OC was one of them.
Director of Media Relations said enrollment was good and everything was going well at the time.
An analyst in Austin said they needed to trim the state budget and if they could knock out four community colleges that would help, Chisum said.
“What they did was take a 20-year snapshot from 2011 back to 1991 to see which community had grown the least in that time. So No. 1, there were a lot of new community colleges that came on line during that time.
Of course, when you’re new, you’re going to grow a lot; go from zero to a bunch, so they weren’t even included in that that,” Chisum said.
There were others in fast-growth areas that were growing because the population was growing.
“Here we are out in West Texas. What else happened in 1991? The year that they started this look back, that’s when UTPB became a four-year institution. That’s going to have an impact on us, and Midland College at that time increased their service area. Then the derivative thing happened in 1994, so we went way down and had to recover from that,” Chisum said.
The college did recover and had a lot of community backing.
“They beat that down at the local level and we had a lot of business support — chamber of commerce, the school district, UTPB and of course the legislators and we were able to defeat that and get our funding back,” she said.
“But in reality, it wouldn’t have been that bad of a deal. We used to get a third of our revenue from state funding. At that point, it got down to about 20 percent,” Chisum said.
Now OC gets about 17 percent of its funding from the state, she said, and it continues to decline.
“… It was such a shock to the community to think you’re going to lose your community college. That’s what they thought. We weren’t going to close our doors,” Chisum said.
Although Chisum said OC would survive with some adjustments, it was hard for people to come to terms with internally.
“… That was kind of the bellwether and Greg said never again will we have to defend ourselves like this. That’s really when we set this goal to become the best community college in the country right then, so we wouldn’t ever have to answer to something like that again,” Chisum said.
That’s when everything started changing and the college got innovative.
“We’ve done some very creative things and now other community colleges are wanting to do the same thing,” Chisum said.
OC has had to go to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and legislature to get them to modify the college’s funding.
“For instance, the eight-week courses, that really had a huge impact, or would have had, a huge impact on our state funding the year that we wanted to implement it simply because of the way the contact hours are counted and the calendar,” Chisum said.
“We went to them and told them what we were trying to do and why we thought it was a good idea for our students. Dr. Williams was able to convince them that, yes this was a good thing so they modified how we were going to be funded that year,” she added.
So OC went from almost being defunded in 2011 to its eight-week classes in 2014 and being named one of the best community colleges in the nation by the Aspen Institute.
Back during the dark days of the 1990s, Chisum remembers telling her father, Charles Walker, who was the business manager at the college when it opened in 1946 that he opened the college and she might have closed it.
The college opened in 1946 and Walker was the business manager for Ector County ISD. At the time, OC, like most community colleges back then, grew out of the public school system, Chisum said.
An election was held to form a junior college district.
“That’s what happened. Murry Fly was the superintendent of ECISD and my dad was the business manager. W.A. Miller was the principal at OHS (Odessa High School). Those three became the administrators for Odessa College when it was formed in 1946. Daddy was the business manager here. They kind of did that as just another job,” she said.
The ECISD school board was the governing board for the college, too, until two years later when the election was held and its own board was chosen.
Fly was tapped to be president of the college and he resigned from ECISD, but Walker elected to stay on at ECISD.
Chisum has a bachelor’s degree in accounting and a master’s in higher education leadership, both from Texas Tech University. She also is a certified public accountant.
“I grew up here. After we graduated from Tech, we moved to Fort Worth for a short period of time. We moved back and I went to work for Turner Ferguson and Company, a CPA firm. Then I went to work for Gibsons; did a little bit of work in oil and gas accounting,” Chisum said.
Her mother was a first-grade teacher and her father was in business management. Chisum said she swore she was going to do something else.
She said people who work in education or any other public service or government entity have to have a missionary calling.
“… You really almost have to have that because you can always make a whole lot more money somewhere else. I always had a passion for it. I guess it comes from my parents,” Chisum said.
She and her husband have two children and four grandchildren.
Executive Director of Administration and Human Resources Ken Zartner is in his ninth year at OC.
“Virginia’s been a leader, a friend, a colleague, a mother at times to me. She’s been absolutely everything you could possibly ask. I’ve never seen somebody work as hard as she has worked here. She’s going to be truly missed. She’s helped me become a better me, each and every day. I have nothing but respect for her.
… She has a son who’s my exact same age. There’s been times when she’s made sure my shirt was tucked in the right way and my hair was done and she’s really has helped me grow here into the position that I’m in now. I wouldn’t be in this place without her,” Zartner said.
You could say that Odessa College Vice President for Business Affairs Virginia Chisum has splendid timing.