Six high-level administrators have left GW this academic year, the highest number of departures in a single academic year in nearly a decade.
The exit of the provost last semester was the first in this round of resignations, though each publicly gave different reasons for their departures. Long-time faculty and higher education experts say there may be little incentive for top-tier officials to stay, as an extensive round of budget cuts looms and officials rework top offices.
Four administrators – ranging from the mental health director to the head of diversity efforts – suddenly resigned or left their posts last fall. Last month, the leaders of the human resources and admissions offices announced departures within six days of each other.
In December, University President Steven Knapp announced 3 to 5 percent budget cuts to all administrative divisions for the next five years. Those cuts, which he said at a Faculty Senate meeting last month will equal about 15 to 25 percent of current budgets, hit high-priority offices – like admissions, fundraising and Title IX – that already faced 5 percent cuts last fall.
“People who are being subjected to budget cuts ultimately might say, ‘I cannot do my job efficiently under these circumstances and at this school’ and move somewhere else,” said Philip Wirtz, a professor of decision sciences and psychology who has been at GW for nearly 30 years.
Turnover through the years
Vice President for Human Resources Sabrina Ellis is the most recent official to step down, triggering a reorganization of GW’s human resources and finance offices. She will take on a similar role at New York University starting next month.
Since Knapp became president in August 2007, 23 top officials have left their posts. Seventeen of those administrators announced their departures unexpectedly, with one occurring after he held his new role for just five weeks.
Former Mental Health Services Director Silvio Weisner was asked to resign last fall after officials learned he was unlicensed to practice as a psychologist in D.C.
Many of the administrators who have left over the last nine years, like long-serving deans and former Senior Vice President for Student and Academic Support Services Robert Chernak, were hired during former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s 19-year tenure. When Knapp arrived, he adopted a new structure for the administration, swapping two vice presidents splitting responsibilities for what he calls a “strong provost” model.
One mainstay has been Executive Vice President and Treasurer Lou Katz, who has been at GW for 26 years.
In his time as president, Knapp has picked deans for all of GW’s schools, with the last dean of the Trachtenberg era leaving in 2014. In the past two years, he has also hired a director for the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design, a new chief of police and a director for a new cancer research institute.
Knapp said he does not consider the six departures this semester to be a high level of turnover, but rather a “stable” period because it’s the first time there are permanent deans or directors at each of GW’s schools or programs.
“Deans, directors, vice presidents and presidents come and go constantly at every university I know, just as managers and executives come and go in business and government,” Knapp said.
Knapp added he noticed no “pattern” to the turnovers and said he was “not aware that any individual has chosen to leave a position” because Lerman left the provost’s office. Lerman will take a sabbatical for the next year before returning to an endowed professorship in the engineering school.
But because strong provosts can attract top academics, some officials may no longer feel like they fit at GW without Lerman, long-time faculty and higher education experts said. Still, they noted that this could be a catalyst for turnover across institutions and is not unique to GW.
Murli Gupta, the chair of the mathematics department who has been at GW for 38 years, said the loss of a leader like Lerman – who worked collaboratively with deans and was highly respected by faculty – may mean officials no longer feel loyal to GW. Lerman was the architect of GW’s 10-year strategic plan, which laid the groundwork for many of its current programs and plans.
Gupta said the departures that have followed Lerman reminded him of the transitions and exists that followed Trachtenberg’s retirement in 2007.
“When you are in a leadership position, you bring people you have confidence in and you know that this person ‒ when you say, ‘I know it has to be done in a certain way,’ ‒ will do it a certain way,” Gupta said. “If you have completely randomly picked new people, you don’t know if they understand what you’re saying, so it makes sense that some of the assistants from his time will want to leave and do something different.”
Financial situation adds pressure
For years, officials and faculty have clashed over GW’s spending patterns, which has added tension as budget cuts to divisions continue.
Faculty have said that Lerman was an even-handed leader who advocated for academics amid GW’s sometimes flashy construction spending. He helped steer the transition of the Corcoran College of Art + Design into the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences last year. GW took over the failing arts school in 2014.
Last summer, officials took out $350 million in new debt, and while the majority was used to pay down existing debt, GW’s total debt load is about $1.7 billion. This fiscal year, officials will make a debt payment of about $83 million, which outpaces the amount they can use from the endowment each year.
While credit rating agencies have maintained GW’s top-tier A ratings for two consecutive years, despite GW adding debt each time, they have also cautioned that GW has a high rate of capital spending relative to its cash flow.
The University has poured $275 million into its state-of-the-art Science and Engineering Hall, a project faculty questioned since before the foundation had been dug in 2011. When Lerman announced last winter that the original funding plan for the building had failed, faculty worried it would come at the cost of future growth for other programs.
Donald Parsons, a professor of economics, said the rising debt and reckless spending has put a massive strain on the University.
“It’s an organization that’s in stress, so not pleasant for much of anyone working there,” Parsons said. “People with talent find other things to do.”
Last year’s 5 percent budget cuts – which Knapp said were necessary after officials missed revenue targets following an enrollment decline – hit administrative divisions as well as academics. Officials cut faculty from the music, creative writing and women’s studies programs. Forty-six employees were laid off, GW’s largest school froze hiring and officials trimmed more than $8 million from funding for the strategic plan.
Lloyd Armstrong, the provost emeritus at the University of Southern California, said budget cuts could bruise morale within administrative offices, which will have trimmed budgets for six consecutive years.
“Whenever there are significant cuts, and on the horizon are more cuts, everybody is sort of saying, ‘I’ve got my job today, but do I have a job next year?’” Armstrong said.
Considering new priorities
Experts and long-time faculty agreed that turnover can also happen as leaders explore new priorities and reorganize offices.
Knapp said he is considering changes to the provost’s office, and meets regularly with interim Provost Forrest Maltzman to review the current structure. He added that once the review is complete, the search for a new provost will begin.
“I do not anticipate any dramatic changes in structure, but I do regard it as a good idea to step back from time to time to assess whether a given administrative structure is accomplishing what it was designed to accomplish,” Knapp said.
Knapp also created a council of vice presidents and deans last fall to identify areas where officials could cut bureaucracy.
After Ellis announced her departure last week, officials reshuffled duties in the finance and human resources offices. Last week they also consolidated online learning and the teaching and learning center, several months after the head of online learning announced he would return to the GW Law School.
Armstrong said that administrative decisions are much more top-down at universities, unlike faculty affairs where officials consider professors’ views.
“It’s not a surprise that the people at the top are deciding what changes they want to make and what direction they want to go,” he said.
Colleen Murphy and Avery Anapol contributed reporting.