The new guard: effects of administrative turnover

New leaders can energize, but not without anxiety.

The last two University of Minnesota presidents inherited administrative teams that led the institution in different directions. While former University President Bob Bruininks had little immediate turnover when he took office, President Eric Kaler saw significant changes in his senior leadership team.

Daily File Photo: Left, Thomas Whisenand; Right, Juliet Farmer

The last two University of Minnesota presidents inherited administrative teams that led the institution in different directions. While former University President Bob Bruininks had little immediate turnover when he took office, President Eric Kaler saw significant changes in his senior leadership team.

Rebecca Harrington

Since Eric Kaler began his presidency at the University of Minnesota in 2011, all but four administrators on his 18-person senior leadership team have left their old posts.

It’s an unspoken rule in higher education that when a new president comes in, key administrators offer their resignation so the new leader has the opportunity to choose his or her new hires.

After Kaler was hired, eight administrators retired or returned to teaching, six got promotions at other universities or companies and one took another position in the senior leadership team.

Since Kaler named Dr. Brooks Jackson vice president for the health sciences and Medical School dean this month, most of the team is set, ready to steer the University into the next decades.

Experts say universities need to strike a balance between bringing in people with fresh ideas and keeping enough administrators with the institutional memory to maintain stability.

Building a university’s senior leadership team is more about meshing personalities and leadership styles than it is about policies.

Administrators may disagree on ideas, but they ultimately have to get along if they’re going to get anything done.

Types of turnover

Administrative turnover after presidential hires varies across higher education and in University of Minnesota history.

When former University president Bob Bruininks took office in 2002, he had little immediate turnover.

Bruininks declined to comment for this story, but many at the University attributed his gradual transition to the fact that he moved up through the ranks — from professor to dean to provost — before becoming president. He was already used to working with the team in place when he took office, so he didn’t make many changes.

But when presidential hires come from outside institutions, they often revamp the team. And Kaler’s team has seen more change than most.

The team includes administrators who report to him, the chancellors of the coordinate campuses and the vice presidents who oversee operations from academics to athletics.

“The thing that new leaders bring, of course, are new perspectives and new ideas and new ways of doing things,” Kaler said, “and I think that fresh energy is important to bring to an institution.”

Part of attracting the best person for each job is offering prestigious titles, said College of Science and Engineering Associate Dean for Academic Affairs Chris Cramer. It’s also the salary.

In 2011, the average annual salary for Bruininks’ senior leadership team was about $264,000.

For Kaler’s current senior leadership team, that average is about $291,000.

The nature of the job

Being in University administration is like having a fire hose constantly pointed at your face, Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said.

“At some point, you can definitely overstay,” he said. “After 20 to 30 years working in a senior position here, you’re worn out. These are tough jobs, demanding jobs.”

Many administrators at the University under Bruininks’ presidency were there for years, and many retired after he stepped down.

Association of Governing Boards Senior Vice President Jamie Ferrare said across higher education, the No. 1 reason he sees administrators leave is because their visions don’t align with a new president’s.

“Some people believe that the new president should have the opportunity to bring his or her own team in there,” Ferrare said, “so they voluntarily move aside.”

Robert Jones, who was the University’s senior vice president for academic administration, left last year to be president of the University at Albany.

Presidents at universities have a limited amount of time to get things done, Jones said, so they need their own teams in place as soon as possible.

“That’s why everyone that serves and reports directly to the president knows they serve at the pleasure of [him or her],” Jones said. “For 20 to 25 years, for every president or provost that I’ve worked for, I basically served at the pleasure of.”

But not all administrators feel the need to offer their resignation. Pfutzenreuter said he knew from his first meeting with Kaler that their personalities matched and he wouldn’t have any problems staying on for a fourth University president.

Gail Klatt, associate vice president of internal audits, said she assumed she would stay when Kaler became president. Klatt and Pfutzenreuter are two of the few administrators who remained for Kaler’s cabinet.

“I like my job, I like what I do and I’m not at the age to think about retirement,” she said. “I never thought not to stay.”

Building political capital

If new administrators want to get things done, they first need to get University faculty and staff behind them and their ideas.

The hiring process can start building that trust, because many of the University’s key constituents sit on the search committees that interview candidates.

If the search committee endorses a candidate, that confidence will likely follow the candidate to his or her new post, said acting Vice Provost and Dean of Graduate Education Sally Kohlstedt.

“The way that President Kaler has moved forward is probably wise,” she said. “He has brought in new people, there is some turnover, there is some new energy, but … he didn’t try to bring in people from the place that he knew well.”

When former President Mark Yudof took the post, he brought a few of his own people and appointed them to key positions.

Many who were at the University said this wasn’t extremely detrimental to Yudof’s presidency but did ruffle some feathers.

In contrast, Kaler conducted full searches for almost all of the top, open positions.

Kohlstedt said full searches were a clever way of managing the turnover because it showed Kaler wanted the community to choose the new leaders before he and the Board of Regents confirmed them.

Cramer said faculty in particular don’t like when big changes happen too fast. The most successful way to manage turnover in faculty members’ eyes is doing it slowly, Cramer said, allowing feedback at every step.

Because faculty and staff ultimately carry out many of the changes administrators make, seeking input before implementing them is wise, said mechanical engineering professor and Faculty Consultative Committee Chair Will Durfee.

“The more that it’s been discussed in advance, then the better the rollout will be,” he said. “You have to have faculty behind you.”

Anxiety ‘in the ranks’

The transition before a new hire can create a “lame duck” situation in which faculty and staff hesitate to act on ideas that might not weather the change.

When new senior leaders arrive from other schools — as many recent ones did — they have to learn how the University machine operates before starting to implement fresh ideas and policies.

“It’s not as if you’re frozen,” Durfee said, “but you just need that next leader in place before you move ahead.”

Durfee and Cramer said faculty and staff can feel anxious in the first few months after a hire. Will they get along with the new administrator? Will they listen to concerns? Will they implement constituents’ ideas?

Former Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Jerry Rinehart said faculty and staff often lobby the new hire to ensure they can keep their programs and jobs.

“Everybody is worried that their particular area might be the one getting axed or getting cut or significantly changed,” Rinehart said, “and those big changes are most likely to occur when there is a transition in the leadership.”

These worries often don’t come to fruition, he said.

But new Vice President for Equity and Diversity Katrice Albert said she’ll discuss finding other jobs for her current staff if their visions don’t align with hers.

“I serve those who work with me, and I want to make sure I am doing everything I can do to make sure that they’re successful,” she said. “But if people resist that, then they’re going to have to figure out maybe this is not the right place for you anymore.”

But with the changes, administrators do energize the institution. Cramer said they often get a “honeymoon period” at the beginning of their tenure when everyone is excited to implement their fresh ideas.

Leadership styles differ, and the time it takes a new administrator to transition isn’t long, Pfutzenreuter said.

“There’s a period of uncertainty among people down in the ranks,” he said. “But that period passes fairly quickly, and then people get excited and get refreshed.”

Drawing on institutional memory

Many administrators want to leave their mark on a school so they can point to significant accomplishments.

“Typically, new groups of administration think about their own legacy,” said David Weerts, associate professor and director of the University’s Jandris Center for Innovative Higher Education. “So even though there might be some things that were started that may be really good, those things may or may not continue.”

While external hires may not know a university’s history, a stable staff can help avoid reinventing the wheel.

Institutional memory allows the old guard to warn new administrators when the University has already tried an idea and found it didn’t work, Pfutzenreuter said.

But it isn’t productive if a new administrator ignores that institutional memory or assumes the University is doing everything wrong, Cramer said.

“The most dangerous person is the one who comes in from outside and does not take enough time to get the lay of the land and just starts trying to impose his or her will on a potentially intractable system,” he said.

With heavy turnover, the University could also lose connection with the school’s top donors, Weerts said.

“If you’ve had somebody in place for a long time and they’ve established a real trusting relationship, and all of a sudden you have a brand-new team, you have to make sure there’s continuity to keep people’s loyalty to the institution,” he said.

But while the University’s upper-tier leadership may have changed, Pfutzenreuter said, the next layer down remains mostly stable.

Albert said she’s leaned on Kris Lockhart, who served as the interim vice president for diversity since 2010, for help in the transition. Lockhart is currently the associate vice president for diversity.

“She has been just wonderful in making sure that I am being transitioned effectively and that people see me as the new leader,” Albert said.

The arrival of new administrators is also an opportune time to think about what is and isn’t working at the University, Kohlstedt said.

“We do want to think that we continuously rethink who we are and what we do,” she said.

Changes to come

With one of the last interim spots now filled, Kaler’s senior leadership team has started a strategic plan to plot the University’s course for the next decade and beyond. His administration is poised to make big changes.

With the pressures and funding woes plaguing higher education, Jones said, controlling turnover to build the best administrative team is crucial.

“That’s absolutely, critically important in these very, very difficult times when all the multiple forces are being brought to bear on higher education,” he said. “You need very talented people, seasoned people who know the landscape that can work very seamlessly together.”

Universities are historically slow to implement new ideas, Durfee said, but that will have to change in order to combat new challenges like decreasing state funding and rising tuition.

“The [University] is a pretty big ship,” Kohlstedt said. “And nobody changes its direction quickly.”

Because everyone is so new, Klatt said, the leadership team has spent time getting to know one another so they can understand each other’s leadership styles and move the University forward.

“It has been just spending time together,” she said, “and finding that common understanding of how each of our efforts furthers the president’s agenda for the institution.”