Cautious admissions leader leaves turbulent office

Media Credit: Hatchet File Photo

Former Dean of Admissions Karen Felton was the face of the admissions office for the last five years, seen here at an admitted students day last spring. Felton announced last week that she will resign at the end of this semester.

GW’s dean of admissions is leaving the University to find new options and grow professionally, she said last week.

Karen Stroud Felton, who announced last week that she will resign in May after five years at GW, said she made the decision to step down on her own. But as priorities for the University and rankings scandals hit admissions leaders, those who worked in the office said she followed the decisions of those ranked above her, rather than charting new territory of her own.

Felton said while she is “not ready” to discuss her future after GW, she will focus on recruiting and enrolling the Class of 2020 during the rest of her time as dean and will leave decisions on the future make-up of the admissions team up to her successor and other administrators.

Officials said they will immediately begin a national search for Felton’s replacement. She is the fifth top-level administrator to resign from GW in this academic year.

“The team in undergraduate admissions is one of the strongest with which I’ve worked,” she said. “The next dean will be fortunate to work with such a talented team of admissions professionals.”

Felton was with the admissions office through two major scandals: when officials admitted to inflating admissions data for more than a decade in 2012, and when officials publicly admitted to waitlisting students who cannot afford GW’s tuition in 2013. She also helped spearhead a new test-optional admission policy, but faced pushback last year when officials announced they would admit 45 percent of the freshman class.

Though former staffers said Felton was a respectful and trusting leader, those scandals also shaped her cautious approach to admissions. And with budget cuts hitting all central administrative divisions last year and again over the next five years, experts say it’s understandable that Felton would choose to move on.

Staff turnover
Three former admissions staffers said they either noticed high turnover within the admission office while working there, or have noted it since leaving the office.

One former student employee who worked in the admissions office for a year said the high turnover rates were noticeable, even to student staff who didn’t spend a great deal of time working in the office. She said that after hearing the announcement about Felton leaving, she checked the GW admissions staff website and only recognized the names of three admission representatives.

Out of the 17 admission representatives listed on a staff website in August 2014, seven remain in that role and at least four others are in different positions at GW, according to an analysis of the sites.

Another former student employee who worked in the office for more than a year said he thought those in the office were “skating by” to avoid making the mistakes that put a spotlight on GW’s admissions process in recent years.

“Karen has been around for a while now and it’s time to see a change and a new vision, and to implement that new vision,” he said.

Anna Ivey, the former dean of admissions at the University of Chicago Law School said that while turnover in any kind of office can be “disruptive” because it requires hiring and training new staffers, it could be beneficial for an admissions office that’s looking to align itself with new goals.

“I think on the one hand it helps to have continuity,” Ivey said. “But on the other hand, if you have the wrong people in the wrong place, sometimes, unfortunately, the best way to fix the issue is to fix the person.”

Felton’s legacy
Senior Associate Provost for Enrollment Management Laurie Koehler, who came to GW in 2013, said the admissions office will continue to work on improving the quality of the incoming class and increasing access for applicants of all backgrounds.

Koehler said that during the gap in the official deanship, she and other senior members of the admissions team will lead the office.

“Karen and the team have done exceptional work, having enrolled the academically strongest class in recent history this past fall,” Koehler said. “We will continue to focus on enrolling academically outstanding and diverse students.”

Koehler added that she is in talks with Felton about other ways Felton could remain at GW but that it would be “premature” to comment further on what those options could be.

“Karen is highly valued by GW, and has outstanding skills, talents and knowledge,” Koehler said.

Felton was one of the most high-profile administrators on campus, making herself available to future students and attending major events like Colonial Inauguration. She and other admissions officials also hired a consultant to better market the Mount Vernon Campus to prospective students, and overhauled admitted students days to make them more upscale.

Joe Greenberg, a former regional director of admissions who worked in the office for 14 years, said Felton always worked to make sure that admission representatives felt supported, and weren’t pushed to make major changes to their routines after her arrival. He said that while he only visited the office about four times a year, he and Felton developed a relationship of trust while he recruited students on the ground in New England.

He added that other changes, like how scholarships are given to potential students, bothered him because they were removed from the admission officers’ responsibilities, but said that he didn’t think Felton made those decisions. Scholarships used to be recommended for accepted students by the admissions officer, but that decision is now determined by a committee.

“I think some of the changes were made above her,” he said. “I think once that happens you either say ‘fine’ or you leave, and she was willing to go along with those changes.”

Impact of budget cuts
While a strong admissions office is key to the University’s financial health, experts said another round of budget cuts isn’t an enticing reason to stay in charge of the division.

In December, Knapp announced 3 to 5 percent budget cuts for each central administrative division within the University each year for the next five years – cuts that will hit the admissions office.

Officials delayed parts of the strategic plan and laid off 46 staff members last year after missed budget projections led to 5 cuts across administrative divisions. Leaders in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences enacted a hiring freeze, and the music, creative writing and women’s studies programs have also seen cuts.

Joseph Cordes, an economics professor and chair of the Faculty Senate’s finance committee, said he would be “surprised” if admissions staff were laid off with the cuts, because a hearty office is key for a strong admission cycle.

GW is roughly 75 percent tuition reliant to make up its operating revenue. Drops in graduate enrollment led to 5 percent budget cuts across administrative divisions last year.

“The fact that they said they’re looking for a replacement leads me to believe that it’s not an area where they’re trying to cut down on personnel,” Cordes said.

Noel Radomski, the director of the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education, said the admissions office will need a strong interim plan to make sure it’s able to hit its totals for undergraduate admission and prevent future budget cuts. Admissions officials at all schools must accurately predict their yield rate, the percentage of students that will enroll after being accepted, to ensure they have sufficient space and services available on campus.

“That’s positive, so as long as they have some type of interim while they pursue a national search, because you want to keep moving forward without any bumps or hurdles,” he said. “That’s critical.”

Avery Anapol contributed reporting.

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