Statistically speaking, Sandra K. Woodley's college career looks bleak. Married at 18, she had two babies by her early 20s. It took her 10 years, and several transfers, to graduate.
The next president of the University of Louisiana system feared mathematics so much that she avoided taking any course in the subject until her final semester of community college and nearly dropped it when she failed her first test.
But the encouraging words of a math instructor kept her glued to a path that eventually led to a doctorate in business administration and a career as a top financial officer for university systems in four states. And her early struggles taught her to look deeper into the numbers that predict and define success in higher education.
"If you want to improve, you have to be able to take a hard look at yourself and be honest about where you are and how much you can move the needle with the resources you have," says Ms. Woodley, 49, who is now vice chancellor for strategic initiatives for the University of Texas system. On January 1 she will replace Randy Moffett, who is retiring after four years of leading the Louisiana system.
The resources available to the Louisiana system have shrunk significantly in recent years, even as it struggles to educate students like the one Ms. Woodley once was, who juggle work, family, and money pressures.
State lawmakers have slashed appropriations to eight of the system's nine universities by 45 percent over the past four years. (The ninth, the University of New Orleans, didn't join the system until last year.)
Meanwhile, higher tuition and tougher standards at some campuses have caused enrollment to slide, and program cuts have sparked faculty complaints.
Ms. Woodley, who has spent much of her career developing analytics systems to help campuses be more productive and efficient, looks forward to doing the same in Louisiana. She hopes to help campuses collect data that will let them identify, and learn from, high-performing institutions with similar financial and demographic challenges.
In Texas she has worked with campus groups to create an online productivity database championed by the system's chancellor, Francisco G. Cigarroa.
She's had to win over professors who said faculty productivity could not be measured by the number of students taught and research dollars generated.
"The faculty understood that it's not enough to say, 'You don't understand me, so don't try to measure me,'" Ms. Woodley says. "They knew they were going to be measured, so either they could roll up their sleeves and get in the game with us to be sure we had the appropriate context, or it was going to be done for them."
Such blunt talk is tempered by a friendly, down-to-earth demeanor and self-deprecating humor, especially when she's reflecting on her own early struggles. Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs at Texas, says she was "collegial but firm" in arguing for performance metrics, "and, ultimately, we did what we needed to do."
Wayne Parker, chair of the University of Louisiana system's Board of Supervisors, says the board liked Ms. Woodley's expertise in strategic planning and her skill in squeezing the most out of what little she has to work with.
"We were impressed with her whole story of how she started out and how, throughout her whole career, she's been taking on challenges that have prepared her for just this kind of position," he says.
Ms. Woodley's father was a barber and her mother a homemaker. As someone who married at 18 to escape the turmoil of her parents' divorce, she says she identifies with students struggling to graduate in four, or even six, years.
Encouraged by supportive instructors, she eventually earned degrees in business administration from Auburn University and her doctorate from Nova Southeastern University.
She became a financial analyst for the Alabama Legislature, vice president for finance, planning, and performance at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, and chief financial officer of the Arizona University System.
"I only took one math class in high school, and I became a CFO," she says. "Hopefully, I can be an inspiration to students who don't have the best of starts."