Q and A Conversation with Dr. Ashok Roy
Dr. Ashok Roy
University of Alaska
Dr. Ashok K. Roy’s diverse background spans across continents, corporate and university boardrooms, quiet provincial towns and metropolitan cities.
Born and raised in India, he holds six university degrees and five professional certifications from institutes of higher learning in India, Great Britain and the United States. He’s been an adjunct professor, is a prolific writer with chapters in encyclopedias, and has held numerous senior level positions in fields ranging from banking to local government and universities.
He describes himself as having an “omnivorous appetite to know, or intellectual curiosity.” Here’s a closer look at UA’s Vice President of Finance and Administration and Chief Financial Officer.
You were born and raised in India. Can you tell me a little about that?
My family has an uncommon history spanning generations. My great grandfather received a master’s degree in the 1800s. My grandfather had a bachelor’s. All my uncles, cousins—everyone in my family—are professionals and hold university degrees.
My father was a doctor of medicine. He was extremely widely read. He graduated top of his class at London University. He saw five years of active combat as a senior officer with the Royal Air Force and the British Army in Burma during World War II. In 1956, he published pioneering research proving that Pneumoconiosis—a fatal lung disease found in coal mine workers—existed in Asia and was not limited to Europe and the United States, as was the paradigm in medical literature at the time.
My mother was a linguist, proficient in five languages. I had only one sibling, my brother. He passed away in the tenth grade. He was exceptional in the sense that he was first in his class at every grade until he passed away. His death was very devastating for us.
I attended Jesuit-run boarding schools for most of my education. Growing up in India is like anywhere: you worry about finding a job after college—nothing unique. You go to school; you like some professors, you don’t like some professors; it’s all the same. No matter where you are, it’s the same anxieties, same ambitions as anyone anywhere else.
What has your impression been of moving to Alaska? What surprised you? How has it impacted your family?
I have seen a lot of unique things here: the long months of dark winter, interminable forests, flow of broad rivers, the sighing of the breeze in the birch trees. That’s pretty unique. I’ve been all over the world in many countries but never seen anything like this.
My wife Vicki works from home managing clinical study drug trials for big pharmaceutical companies. It’s intense work. There’s a ton of regulation. It costs billions of dollars to get a new drug on the market and if the FDA denies it, you loose it all. There’s a lot riding on this work.
There was some trepidation in the beginning about moving up here. When you hear about Alaska—especially the Interior—you think you’re going to freeze to death. But that never happened.
You have two daughters. Tell me about them.
My daughters, at 24 and 25 years of age, are fifth generation college graduates in our family. Both of them graduated from the top 10 nationally ranked programs in their fields from Indiana University: in finance and education. Both of them had good job offers in 2009 and 2010—at the height of the recession—before they graduated.
Brittani spent two years teaching in the Navajo reservation in Arizona just for the experience. She now teaches middle school in Phoenix. She’s completing her master’s degree this December and will pursue a doctorate degree after that.
Priya is an investment banker on Wall Street. You have heard the cliché of Wall Street vs. Main Street; well it truly is a different world. I’ve seen it. Less than one percent of college graduates get into Wall Street. She’s already travelled the world and is currently posted in Sydney, Australia. She deals in “high” finance: private equity, acquisition models, mezzanine debt rollovers, etc. She’s also been admitted to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, which is ranked number one in finance and is an Ivy League school.
The legacy of our family’s strong commitment to higher education—five generations—lives on with our daughters. Both of them are outstanding at what they do.
How did you get your start in finance?
I started in finance because at that time, it was a new field of study and I thought there would be prospects. As soon as I graduated I went into management in banking. It was helpful in that sense; it has served me well. I saw the opportunity in the field but there was no crystal ball. That’s one of the lessons: that life is full of twists and turns, and the turns you make often determine the course of your life.
You have done work in both private business and universities. What are some of the differences between the two?
This is my fourth university position. I’ve also held senior positions in the private sector and local government in addition to experiences in academia. I am a strong believer that you should work in different organizations. It gives you different perspectives and develops different skill sets. It’s like the analogy of a frog in a well. The frog knows everything about what is happening in the well, but there’s an entire world outside that well the frog knows nothing about. You can’t see if you don’t step outside. That’s why even on Wall Street and in Ivy League schools they encourage you to go out. It brings a portfolio of deeper insights.
The biggest difference between private corporations and universities is in the speed of decision-making. Here it is done by consensus; things take longer for execution. In business, execution is everything.
Then there is a major difference in focus. One of the challenges of higher education is that it is difficult to put a price on the cost or value of education. One way of measuring is graduation rates, or the earning potential of alumni. The other thing is, does it put out informed citizens? But you cannot monetize an informed citizen. Education provides a framework for life.
You’ve written articles covering so many different topics. Where do you get your inspiration to write?
I have a huge library I’ve collected over the years. I try to read one non-work-related book a week. I’ve done that throughout my life. And I read the Economist. My taste is eclectic. For instance this week on Amazon I ordered “Pope Francis: Untying the Knot” and “Hans and Rudolf: the German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz.”
I tell my classes, in life you have the choice of being a hedgehog or a fox. What’s the difference between the two? A hedgehog knows one thing very well; the fox knows many things. I like to be a fox. I like to know many things, maybe not in great depth, but my interests are eclectic.
There are the lessons I share with others from my experiences, my travels and my life, in macro themes. I’d say there are five or six such lessons.
The first lesson is that life is a dance to the music of time. What is important is what you do during life and how you live it.
The second lesson is to enjoy life. It is a mistake not to.
The third thing I have learned is to eat as many types of food as you can. The tastes and varieties are not only fabulous, they are endless. Every cuisine in the world has something that is just fantastic.
A fourth lesson is to visit other countries. You see the beauty of Paris; the beauty of Hong Kong; the beauty of Rio de Janeiro; these ones stand out. You can experience the history in each cobblestone in London. If you want to see efficiency and cleanliness, there is no other place like Singapore.
In time dreams fade like old photos. Nothing remains so it is wise to always contemplate our connection to the Divine. One should not loose that balance. Do what you want. Be successful. Climb to the top of Everest.
You recently wrote about affordability. How does UA compare to other institutions?
Compared to the other universities I have been at, UA is very affordable. No doubt about it. That is a positive. But it has to be marketed. When you have something good, don’t hide it under a basket; it doesn’t serve your purpose.
We face enrollment challenges. With our affordability, that shouldn’t be. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet. People want a college degree. In sheer numbers there is a huge demand for higher education. Given the fact that we are more affordable than the majority of universities there should be greater demand for students to come here.
There are many factors affecting us. There is the “Alaska fear factor.” There are academic rankings, which is a huge thing.
It goes both ways. We have to enhance our academic rankings. There is no way out of that as a university. We have to do that and still keep the tuition affordable. That balance is the best strategy.
What kind of long-term financial planning challenges does the Alaska economic future present to the university?
The biggest point is that Alaska has to diversify the sources of revenue. Right now, we’re so dependent on one source, oil, that we are very vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. We also have fisheries and mining. But these are also extractive industries. These are dependent on supply and commodity prices. That being the case, along with the fact that energy costs in the Lower 48 are projected to go down, leaves us vulnerable.
Exactly the same thing applies to the university. We are vulnerable because 46 percent of our revenue comes from the state. Which is the highest in the nation. How are other universities with less state support doing well?
You cannot generate additional revenue sources overnight. We have to increase enrollment. Alaska’s population only increases 1 percent a year. Alaska has some of the lowest numbers of people going to college among all the 50 states. So the local cohort pool is very limited. The only way to increase the pool of students is to go outside the state or country and bring in students. This can definitely be done.
We have to sell our affordability. We have to sell our unique strengths. Those strengths, as I see it, lie in Arctic research, and in petroleum engineering. We have to sell those. If you sell it well, keep costs affordable and have good rankings, you should attract outside students. Once outside students come here, tuition revenue increases so we have less dependence on the state. We must diversify.
What does the job of CFO entail?
Apart from procedural issues there are policy issues, internal control issues, fraud investigation, discussions with auditors, new policies—I put in place number of new policies.
Of course I look at the operating income and expenditures and debt service. In broad terms provide financial and analytical support for the multifaceted mission of UA. Currently, we are implementing fraud and Education Trust of Alaska policies. I work at the control level, the policy level: the financial health of the university. These have not only reputational risks they have financial implications.
At the end of the day finance is the lifeblood of the university. If you don’t have money, you can’t do anything—no matter what it is.
The new UAF dining facility is being financed and built using lease revenue bonds. This is the first time we’ve done this. Can you tell me how this works? Is this a trend to look for in the future?
Yes. These public private partnerships are mutually beneficial and common at the other places I’ve worked. The private sector puts in the money to build the project, then we pay off the bond, pay the debt and assume ownership. This is a model that should be, and will be, looked at for student housing and is an option for the heat and power plant.
You’re also a professor. What do you teach?
I have taught for more than 15 years at a large community college and university, teaching mostly courses on the economics of Asia.
The impact of China on the world’s economy is something I always talk about. They are the second largest economy in the world. No one in history has done what they have. They’ve moved 500 million people from poverty to the middle class in one generation. They’ve compressed economic development into 40 years what took Europe 200 years. I’ve been there and seen this. The paradox is that everyone looks at China as a communist country. And yes, they are communist, but when it comes to business, they are more capitalistic than most capitalist countries. It is complex and full of contradictions, like other economic power-houses.
We have our perceptions but reality is tempered by something else. I’ve seen the practical parts. There is what you read in a book, but then there is what you see. I bring the application of what really is going on to the theory in the classroom.
What do you do outside of work?
I read and travel and eat. I always say that you must eat. Because it’s unbelievable what is out there.
My wife and I, we have a wanderlust. We travel a lot. We’ve been lots of places. I haven’t been to Antarctica but…
When you travel you realize all human beings have commonalities. In terms of desires, in terms of ambitions, in terms of sorrows, destiny, fate—human kind is very similar. The differences are superficial. Everyone is affected by the same things. You travel and become more charitable in opinion. You become more tempered in your judgments.