University News

Administrative turnover marks U. transition

Senior staff is not concerned about loss of experience as the strategic planning process nears completion

By
Senior Staff Writer
Monday, September 9, 2013

Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron’s planned departure from the University this December marks the latest in a spate of high-level administrative changes at the University. When Bergeron vacates the deanship this winter, 10 of 19 senior staff positions — including the presidency — will have changed hands in the 18 months since President Christina Paxson assumed the top job in July 2012.

Just seven members of the president’s cabinet predate the July 2011 arrival of Provost Mark Schlissel P’15, and one of them, Executive Vice President for Planning Russell Carey ’91 MA’06, has since changed positions within the cabinet. Such administrative turnover typically accompanies a presidential transition, The Herald previously reported, and is “a natural consequence of the rhythm of academic leadership,” Schlissel said.

“People who are usually faculty members step up and do a significant leadership job on behalf of the community for a certain length of time, and then they usually go back to being a professor,” he said. Both Professor of Medicine Edward Wing and Professor of Engineering Clyde Briant stepped down earlier this year from their positions as dean of medicine and biological sciences and vice president for research, respectively, to return to full-time teaching and research, Schlissel noted.

What seems like “a lot of coming and going” is actually a normal amount of turnover, Schlissel said.

The turbulent two-year presidency of Gordon Gee, who held the post from 1998 to 2000, saw the hiring of two provosts and a new dean of the College in the two years following his arrival. In the next year, when Sheila Blumstein, currently a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences, was interim president, yet another new dean of the College was announced.

At least nine new senior staff members were hired in the first 18 months of Ruth Simmons’ stewardship of the University, including Simmons herself.

The administration also saw a series of changes in the summers of 2006 and 2008.

But regardless of the precedence for such turnover, the departures constitute a loss of experienced voices at a critical time for the University as it enters the final stages of developing and implementing its strategic plan, which will outline the priorities expected to guide Paxson’s tenure.

 

Turnover and the strategic plan

“The strategic plan is really a high-level strategic plan for a decade,” Schlissel said, but by the time that decade is out, “with the exception of the president, almost everybody in senior leadership will cycle back to being a professor or doing a different job.”

Bergeron, who chaired the Committee on Educational Innovation — one of the six committees to help create the plan — has been a major contributor to the strategic plan, but Schlissel said she had been expected to leave at some point within the next few years.

“Although Dean Bergeron had a very significant amount of input into the formation of the strategic plan, it was always clear that whether it was a year from now, two years from now, three years from now, there would be a subsequent dean of the College,” he said.

Bergeron said the collaborative nature of the strategic planning process would help ensure continuity as the plan is approved and implemented.

“One is always trying to ensure that important projects can continue, and you do that by having more than one person who is actually in charge of the work,” she said.

Bergeron, a driving force behind the University’s forays into online education, said she does not think the University will lessen its involvement in that area after her departure.

“Brown is committed to continuing those experiments, and this is something that is, in fact, supported at the provost level,” she said.

The Committee on Online Teaching and Learning is another of the six strategic planning committees, and the University piloted three online courses this summer on Coursera, a platform for massive open online courses.

Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Beppie Huidekoper, who came to the University in 2002 during the second year of Simmons’ presidency — the same point at which many new senior administrators are now joining Paxson’s cabinet — said the excitement of joining an institution in transition outweighs any potential challenges for new administrators.

“It’s a very impactful time to come into an institution when there is a new president — when the president is still formulating his or her agenda you get to participate in the development of the agenda for the future,” she said.

Schlissel said he would like to see the new cabinet members bring their unique perspectives to bear on the strategic planning process.

“I certainly hope that (the new senior leaders) bring ideas that go beyond the ones that were already on the table because they’re different people. They were selected because of their energy and their creativity and their experience.”

Dean of the Faculty Kevin McLaughlin P’12 said the amount of turnover will not harm strategic planning due to the involvement of faculty members and students.

“It’s really been a strategic planning effort that’s been very grassroots,” he said. “The actual contributions of faculty and students to the process means that as we move forward, there’s a sense of ownership … of the strategic plan.”

 

Institutional knowledge

“When positions turn over, the new incumbent comes to the job and has a learning curve to their new job, but they also bring with them their preexisting knowledge,” Schlissel said. “Institutional knowledge suffers when senior leaders step away, but that memory gets replaced by the experiences that new leaders bring to the table.”

Huidekoper said she is unconcerned about a possible loss of institutional memory. “I just don’t see it as a challenge and a problem.”

Stephen Nelson, a higher education expert and senior scholar at the Leadership Alliance at Brown, said universities need balance when it comes to senior administrative turnover.

Too many new senior leaders can lead to a case of “the blind leading the blind,” he said. “The institutional memory is being kept by just a handful of people, often underneath the culture,” and their advice might not be heeded. “It can easily get buried.”

“On the other hand, some fresh blood is going to open up the windows and offer fresh perspectives,” he said. “Any senior leadership can get stultified, can get fossilized if there isn’t at least some turnover.”

Huidekoper also said that while many senior staffers have left, the administrators directly beneath them remain in place, providing continuity to keep operations running smoothly and offering an understanding of the University’s history.

“We have strong people in the number two, three and four positions so that I’m less worried about the institutional memory,” she said.

Bergeron said the Office of the Dean of the College has “an extremely strong team of deans who are really at the top of their game” and holds “a lot of institutional knowledge.”

Huidekoper and McLaughlin both said some of those who step down from administrative positions remain at the University in different capacities and help maintain institutional memory, citing Wing’s and Briant’s returns to the faculty.

“Turnover is good and normal, and to a certain extent it’s part of an organic regeneration of the senior ranks,” McLaughlin said. “These positions are also quite demanding and … there comes a time when it’s good to step down.”

“What the turnover that we’ve experienced in the last two years has shown us is that turnover also means opportunities to bring new people into positions,” he said. “We have a very good talent base on campus, and we’re very well-regarded around the country as a place to be. So I’m very confident that we’ll be appointing some highly talented people to administrative positions as they open, including the dean of the College, which has to be one of the most attractive senior administrative positions in the country.”

McLaughlin also said the Corporation continues to provide institutional memory, especially during the strategic planning process, noting that many have been involved with strategic planning at the University for several decades.

McLaughlin said he is also unconcerned that new administrators will suddenly bring “radical change,” adding that “older institutions tend to have continuity.”