The long congenial relationship between the educational program providers of the “Certified Financial Planner” designation and the CFP Board of Standards is showing signs of strain. Sources contacted by National Underwriter say issues ranging from staff layoffs to a planned review of educational requirements are heightening concerns among program directors about the future of the CFP mark.

Particularly upsetting, observers say, is the perceived breakdown in collaboration among players that have a vested interest in the professional designation.

“Going forward, [the CFP Board] has to solicit feedback from the program directors so they feel like they’re being heard,” says Tony Macari, an assistant dean of business and legal studies at New York University, New York. “The message is clear: Communications need to be improved.”

Somnath Basu, a professor and CFP program director at California Lutheran University, Thousand Oaks, Calif., agrees, adding: “There is too much division among the various stakeholders. This is a time to unite, not divide. We need to figure out how to strengthen each other.”

The rift between the CFP Board and the educational program directors became evident during the annual program directors conference in August. Participants say CFP Board CEO Sarah Teslik failed to communicate a vision for the organization during her brief opening remarks. Some describe her manner during the gathering as “distant,” “uncommunicative” and “arrogant.”

Equally distressing for the program directors are the employee cutbacks the board has undertaken. Since becoming CEO in 2004, Teslik has more than halved the board staff, reducing its full-time contingent from 72 to 28 employees.

Among those downsized: David Livran. The former director of examination received his pink slip just days after the conference, during which he detailed new educational topics resulting from a 2004 job analysis survey of CFP practitioners.

In an interview with National Underwriter, Teslik justifies some of the job eliminations by noting the services of affected employees were rendered unnecessary. The CFP Board, she says, was using technology that “largely erased the need” for people employed in three externally focused departments, plus their support staffs.

Further necessitating the personnel changes, she contends, was a projected deficit for 2005 (the board now anticipates a surplus); and the fact that the organization, though “generously staffed” compared with other non-governmental, certifying bodies, was not fully realizing its public mission.

“If we’re going to be a world-class board, then everyone has to be 90% or better of what a star employee is,” said Teslik. “In exchange for superior pay and benefits, we want people who are stars.”

Since the layoffs, Teslik has recruited two people, including a new director of examination, and anticipates hiring another 5 individuals next year. All key functions, she says, are now adequately staffed.

Some program directors, however, remain unconvinced.

“She [Teslik] came to the CFP Board and fired some of the most competent and beloved figures,” says Rosilyn Overton, an assistant professor and graduate coordinator for the Master of Science in Finance and Professional Financial Planning program at New Jersey City University, Jersey City, N.J. “No other people were more committed or more knowledgeable.

“What happened at the CFP Board is what often happens when a new CEO takes over an organization,” adds Overton. “They get rid of people who can challenge them.”

Teslik disputes this assertion, observing that she is receptive to others’ suggestions and has, in fact, implemented many staff proposals. What critics actually found disconcerting, she argues, was the shift from a culture wherein no decisions were made unless everyone on the board agreed to them.

“If you only have to hold an exam three times per year, then you can get away with this,” says Teslik. “But if you want to be effective and do more things, then there are times when management needs to say, ‘yes, I’ve listened, but we’re going to do X.’”

Staff reductions aside, program directors are concerned that Teslik may move the CFP Board in a direction that is at cross-purposes with the mission of their institutions: delivering the educational content that leads to the CFP certification; and preserving the CFP mark’s reputation.

In August 2006, for example, the CFP board’s Board of Governors plans to review the education component of the CFP certification process. Some program directors fret that the board may reduce its emphasis on education and registered programs, enabling non-registered educational providers to offer course content leading to the exam. They also worry the board itself may become an educational provider for planners.

“This would be an absolute disaster in my opinion,” says Basu. “The reason why the CFP mark is so successful is because the CFP Board of Standards and the College for Financial Planning are separate entities. If you provide both the education and accreditation, the integrity of the program falls into question.”

Teslik and CFP Board of Governors Chair-elect Bart Francis say such concerns are misplaced. They note the task force, which has yet to be formed, has no preconceived agenda. And they stress that any recommendation that calls on the board to become an education provider would violate its commitment to the National Certifying College for Certifying Agencies.

A related belief–that the CFP Board plans to offer credit counseling to individuals filing for bankruptcy–is equally without merit, says Teslik. The board’s only action in this regard, she notes, was to secure the addition of CFP certificants to a U.S. Department of Justice-approved list of advisors who can offer such counseling. The Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention & Consumer Protection Act of 2005, which goes into effect Oct. 17, mandates this service.

Program directors additionally have expressed a desire to strengthen continuing education. In many instances, CFP certificants can secure CE credits by simply reading an article, passing a quiz and completing a form.

Any changes to CE requirements will have to await the task force review, says Teslik. In the interim, the board aims to bring CE processes, including the auditing of courses, online for the nation’s 48,000-plus certificants. Teslik credits the recent IT upgrades for this improvement.

Whatever the board’s goals, program directors insist they be adequately consulted on strategic decisions. Some counsel enlarging the board to accommodate more seats for program directors (now limited to one). Severin C. Carlson, dean of the School of Business at The College of Saint Rose, Albany, N.Y., suggests creating an independent advisory committee comprised solely of program directors.

Ultimately, sources say, the CFP Board needs a system of checks and balances to ensure that all stakeholders–program providers, government regulators, sister professional organizations and the public–are well served.

“The question that I and other program directors have is this: To whom are the [CFP] Board of Governors accountable for their decisions?” asks Basu. “How are they elected? If they make a mistake and the public suffers as a result, what happens? There needs to be greater oversight.”

This issue, too, will fall within the purview of the task force. But board executives caution that any recommendations–Francis advocates increasing representation by minorities and women–will have to conform to the board’s governance rules and its mandate to serve the public. Otherwise, the board would lose its 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.

For now, the CFP Board has responded to calls for greater communication by agreeing to hold formerly separate annual meetings–that of the program directors, the board of governors, the board of examiners and other professional review gatherings–together in fall of 2006.

The program directors should not, however, expect greater interaction with Teslik, who says conference participants misread her conduct at the August gathering.

“My approach, both at my last job and at the CFP Board, is to showcase my staff,” says Teslik. “Too often, the cult of the CEO gets in the way of the mission. I won’t be that kind of CEO.”

Issues ranging from staff layoffs to a planned review of educational requirements are causing signs of a rift