New board advisors help Center for Municipal Finance broaden its scope

The Center for Municipal Finance at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy has appointed six new members to its board of advisors. 

“We’ve intended to expand the board for a while now, mostly because we wanted to be sure that we were representing the full range of perspectives from across the industry,” Harris School research professor and CMF Director Justin Marlowe said. “It was a chance to broaden the scope, bring in some other perspectives. Every one of these appointees is deeply committed to excellence… Each of them have already added value to the student experience.” 

They are Omar Daghestani, managing director at Stifel; Leila Barbour, deputy director for the Treasury Department’s Office of Capital Markets; Tom Dannenberg, former senior managing director and head of municipal securities at Huntington Securities; Pamela Frederick, chief financial officer of the Battery Park City Authority; Sandra Kim, vice president for finance and administration at St. Mary’s College of California; and Mike Olander, product manager at Bloomberg Index Services.

“It was a chance to broaden the scope, bring in some other perspectives,” Center for Municipal Finance Director Justin Marlowe said of its new board advisors.

The CMF board helps to advance the center’s educational and research mission by “ensuring that the center works hand-in-hand with practitioners and leaders in the field,” according to a press release.

The center’s mission is to serve as a “leading source for the best research, training and outreach on states’ and localities’ taxing, spending, borrowing and investing decisions.”

The board members will not only help to socialize students in the profession, but will also influence the center’s strategic direction.

“They’re all very plugged into the policymaking scene,” Marlowe said. “And we see that as important, because we want to make sure that we are maximizing the influence that we have on policymaking.”

That’s a commitment the new board members share. Whether they’re guiding students through the Harris Policy Innovation Challenge on public pensions, as Daghestani did earlier this year, or helping students with networking on the West Coast, as Kim has done, they’re able to speak directly to the needs of the policymaking community at the present moment.

“I have already met some amazing Harris School students this year and look forward to the chance to continue to work with more students,” Daghestani said. “Personally, I would love to assist getting more students engaged in public policy and municipal finance related organizations like City Club of Chicago, Municipal Forum of New York and others.”

Daghestani noted that since he graduated from policy school, the public policymaking landscape has changed. In the past, to affect policy, people had to go through established channels, he said. Today, he sees Harris School students combining those channels with social media and other new ways to get public buy-in. While this approach risks less-vetted policies, he said, “the upside is great.”  

“Public policy has seen a democratization of discourse,” he said. “The Center for Municipal Finance has helped students and faculty leverage traditional avenues and pair them with modern media and outreach. To my view, this is the future of policy and the CMF is helping drive that future.”  

Kim said she’s excited to work with the other board members and to give back to the Harris School, of which she is an alumna. When she was starting out in public finance, she said, her networking consisted of doing research on her own and reaching out to a few fellow Harris alumni. 

“It was kind of like, you just figured it out and you created your own opportunities,” she said. “The fact that there’s engagement for students currently [through the Center for Municipal Finance] is transformational. It would’ve made my path a little bit easier.”

Kim said Harris has “done an amazing job of expanding the program” and there’s more need than ever for creative problem-solvers in public finance, with infrastructure challenges only growing.

“For those up to the challenge, it’s an amazing career,” she said.

Dannenberg agreed that public finance is as vital now as ever, even if it’s not widely enough understood. He said the center is uniquely positioned to have a meaningful impact on that. 

“I think it’s critically important that more people have an understanding of how integral municipal finance is to the quality of American life,” he said. “I’m most looking forward to helping the CMF in its mission to share that understanding more broadly, particularly across our next generation of leaders and policymakers.”

In the past, he added, municipal finance professionals endured a sort of “baptism by fire” in which they learned the trade on the job. That “didn’t always produce the best results,” he said, but he noted CMF is working to change that by giving students a hands-on education that allows them to join the workforce seamlessly. 

“The mission of the center is to improve the quality of life in our communities through better decisions about public money, and those better decisions require people who are well-trained to do this work,” Marlowe said. “Everything that we’re up to in the center these days is meant to bridge that gap between what goes on in the classroom and what goes on in the real world.”

Frederick stressed the importance of that mission in an era of worsening climate change, crediting the Harris School with “great” leadership in driving the climate adaptation conversation. Today’s students, she said, have an opportunity to modernize infrastructure across the U.S. It’s no easy task, involving trillions in financing needs and sustainability requirements as well as social requirements in each community.

Stifel’s Omar Daghestani speaks to a room full of Harris School students earlier this year. Daghestani, like his fellow appointees, has “already added value to the student experience,” said Center for Municipal Finance Director Justin Marlowe.

Omar Daghestani

“I look forward to advancing shared understanding of environmental impact, pushing forward solutions and aligning policy approaches,” she said, adding that she is very excited to work with CMF and to ensure “that market participants recognize the tremendous recruiting opportunity that exists at the school.”

Barbour said she’s eager to interact with her “distinguished” fellow board members on the top municipal finance topics of the day, “including how state and local governments deploy infrastructure financing and funding tools amid changing market dynamics.”

And she called CMF “unique,” praising its “practical approach” to cultivating the next generation of muni leaders as “a great model.”

Olander said that having worked closely with issuers, regulators, investors, broker dealers and other vendors over the course of his career, it’s “encouraging to see the academic community providing research and educational opportunities that account for the nuances of municipal finance market.”

He noted that while municipal finance is technically and legally different from corporate finance, most undergraduate educations don’t cover what students need to know to become practitioners in the field.

Daghestani said his recent experience with Harris School students taught him that the school is preparing them well. And he said it’s exciting to be part of a growing, vibrant organization that reminds him of Stifel in terms of having its priorities in order.

“You only have so many hours in the day,” he said. “If you don’t really believe in what you’re doing, why would you do it?”

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