With a surprise announcement last week that Provost Steven Lerman would step down at the end of January, many are left wondering: What’s next?
Lerman’s departure leaves several question marks on GW’s next steps. He leaves two years into a 10-year strategic plan that was largely his brainchild, and a foggy future for GW’s international priorities remains. And experts said naming a successor to fill a custom-made role that he has strengthened over the last five years will be no easy task.
Lerman said he first began discussing “the possibility” of stepping down with University President Steven Knapp four weeks ago and weighed factors like his desire to teach and research. After a one-year sabbatical, he will take a new endowed professorship within the School of Engineering and Applied Science — a nod to his roots at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In an interview on Friday, Knapp gave Lerman credit for hiring several of GW’s current deans, promoting interdisciplinary work and fostering a collaborative culture as he created the strategic plan.
“We’ve had a great partnership,” Knapp said, adding that he has not yet decided who will serve as interim provost. “He’s a dedicated faculty member and I understand people in these academic positions do move in and out of the administration with some fluidity. I certainly support whatever he wants to do.”
But Robert Chernak, the former vice president for Student and Academic Support Services who spent 24 years at GW, said Lerman likely also felt tremendous pressure in his role, managing a large portfolio with dozens of people reporting directly to his office — as well as “a lot of balls to juggle in terms of budget stress.”
After two years of missed budget projections, officials cut five percent from all administrative divisions last year. Officials slashed $8.2 million in funding for the strategic plan last winter after a budget shortfall, and portions of the plan were delayed last spring as budget issues continued.
“I think he probably found it difficult in the current culture and fiscal environment to do what it is he thought would be the best direction to go,” Chernak said. “I think it’s a reflection of maybe how difficult it is to perform on the job and meet your expectations when you have an environment that is not as nurturing as it needs to be.”
The legacy of the strategic plan
Lerman said in an email statement that he hopes the strategic plan, which charted a detailed course for the University — ranging from doubling GW’s international student population to hiring more research-minded faculty — would be his “significant legacy.”
“It is something I am proud of and think will be a road map for the further improvement of the University,” Lerman said.
He added he would work closely with his successor to familiarize them with initiatives currently underway as well as with the next steps of the plan.
Knapp said he remains committed to the plan and seeing out the remaining eight years.
“I give Steve Lerman tremendous credit for leading the process of forming the plan and leading the first several years of supporting its implementation, but we’re not slowing down in the implementation of it,” he said.
But experts questioned whether the strategic plan could remain in its current form after Lerman leaves. A new provost could propose new initiatives, choose to prioritize other areas or officials could abandon the plan entirely, experts said.
Hank Reichman, vice president of the American Association of University Professors, said that when the leading official of a strategic plan leaves, a university will sometimes abandon that plan in favor of what the new incoming official has to offer.
“My guess would be is you will hear statements for a while on how dedicated they are to following the strategic plan,” Reichman said. “Then those statements will disappear, and the new provost — or new president — will call for a new strategic plan.”
Officials could also decide to pair existing administrators with the new provost to oversee the plan’s implementation. A new provost likely wouldn’t have mastered GW’s culture and needs, experts said, so an open and communicative process would be necessary.
“I’ve seen a lot of high-level academics and high-level administrators co-chairing it. It’s really helpful because people feel that collaborative practice really stabilizes the strategic planning process,” said Patrick Sanaghan, the president of Sanaghan Group, a consulting firm that helps organizations create strategic plans.
Experts also said a new official leading the plan could provide a fresh eye in determining how the plan has progressed so far.
Joseph Cordes, an economics professor and the chair of the Faculty Senate’s finance committee, said that because the University still has several years left in a plan that has already been hampered by budget cuts, a new provost will likely have to reprioritize remaining initiatives.
“Once you get a new person into the position they’re going to have their own ideas, and some of the strategic plan may shift,” he said.
Donald Parsons, an economics professor and member of the Faculty Senate’s finance committee, called the strategic plan “a joke.” He said officials should focus on paying down GW’s more than $1.6 billion debt load instead of pushing to fund ambitious new programs.
“We’re washed in debt at this point and really in no position to have any serious initiatives funded,” said Parsons, who has written several reports criticizing GW’s long-term financial strategy.
Creating a smooth transition
Lerman is the eighth senior administrator to leave GW or resign from a post suddenly since 2011. Still, it’s impossible to point to one specific reason for those departures — they have ranged from the head of admissions stepping down after GW misreported admissions data in 2012, to the head of the fundraising office leaving during the $1 billion campaign and the University Police Department chief retiring in the middle of last fall semester.
Ann Marcus, the director of the Steinhardt Institute of Higher Education Policy and a higher education professor at New York University, said in an email that there is always some turnover in large universities and deans are likely used to “periodic leadership changes.”
She added that the fact Lerman is staying in his role until January suggests “a normal departure.”
But Jay Dee, an associate professor and the director of the higher education doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said because of the sweeping nature of Lerman’s role, faculty or deans could fear their priorities may be ignored after he leaves. And because so many of GW’s senior leaders were brought in by Lerman, transferring their trust to his successor may not be an easy next step.
“If the budget situation was quite good and stable, there would still be concerns,” Dee said. “You have additional concerns about whether any priorities are moving forward given the budget shortfall.”
Dee said officials must be open with faculty about the search process for a new provost because “rumors emerge in a vacuum of information.”
Experts estimated filling the role of a permanent provost could take up to a year. Officials have not yet released details about who would serve on a search committee for the new provost.
He added that “probably the worst job in higher education is interim anything,” so selecting a well-respected official already at GW to fill the role could help ensure a smooth succession. An interim official faces challenges, he explained, like not having the clout to make major decisions or having faculty call their authority into question during the transition.
“The key now is to maintain trust and communication between faculty and administrators. This is where deans and faculty chairs can play a big role,” Dee said. “They can reassure faculty that their goals don’t have to be placed on hold until the university gets a new provost.”
Noel Radomski, the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said in an email that the relationship between Knapp and the interim provost is also a critical detail. He said any challenges facing the strategic plan could be eased if the interim provost was considered for the permanent position.
“Some interim leaders accept the position with the understanding that they truly are there for the interim and thus the university usually ‘swims in place’ and no major changes are pursued,” Radomski said. “In today’s world, ‘swimming in place’ is not a good option.”
Ellie Smith contributed reporting.