Does Lafayette have a turnover problem?

Graphic by Trebor Maitin 24 for The Lafayette
Graphic by Trebor Maitin ’24 for The Lafayette

7-to-1.

That is the student-to-administrator ratio at Lafayette College, at least if one counts the likes of desktop engineers and coaches as administrators, which the Lafayette College Catalog does.

That ratio is greater than the student-to-faculty ratio: 10-to-1 as advertised by the college. But such a number fails to capture just how many administrators have come and gone in recent years.

During college President Nicole Hurd’s two-and-a-half-year-long administration, six of the college’s 14 top administrators, known as the senior leadership team, have departed the college, according to an analysis by The Lafayette. The forthcoming departure of Provost John Meier will be the seventh.

Under the Alison Byerly administration, which immediately preceded Hurd’s, eight senior administrators left the college over eight years.

“At a college of Lafayette’s relatively small size, no honest observer would deny that the departures of 7 senior administrators in 2.5 years … represent a rate that is abnormal if not alarming,” Eric Ziolkowski, a religious studies professor of 35 years, wrote in an email.

Last February, Ziolkowski signed onto a letter from academic department heads lamenting “the hollowing out of administrative and professional staff” and declining “institutional experience.”

“This point holds as true today as it did almost a year ago, and bears on the question of the accelerated rate of departures from the College,” Ziolkowski wrote.

Byerly, in an email, wrote that turnover early in a president’s tenure is typical.

“It is not uncommon for senior administrators who have been in place for a number of years to view a change in presidents as an opportune moment for change,” wrote Byerly, who served as president from 2013 to 2021. “When I arrived at Lafayette, several senior administrators were already pursuing positions elsewhere, and three took leadership positions at other institutions during my first year, including one who was invited by my predecessor to follow him to Haverford. This gave me the opportunity to build my own team.”

Meier, who has worked at the college for three decades, agreed.

I have seen it occur with the arrival of each new president during my time at Lafayette and elsewhere, as well as in the midst of a president’s tenure as the needs of the institution evolve, Meier wrote in an email. This is a good thing.

Cabinet members, now known as senior leadership team members, left the college less frequently after Byerly’s first year in office – another would not depart until the end of Byerly’s third year – but the departure trend appears sustained under Hurd, according to The Lafayette’s analysis. The Lafayette’s research is based on interviews with former college presidents and current administrators, Lafayette College Catalogs, LinkedIn profiles of administrators, college press releases and news reports; this methodology was also applied in analyses of Bucknell University, Colgate University and the College of the Holy Cross.

Like Byerly, who currently serves as the president of Carleton College in Minnesota, Hurd saw three senior administrators leave the college in her first year: the vice presidents for finance, communications and enrollment, two of whom left for other schools. But in the intervening year and a half, according to The Lafayette’s analysis, three more senior administrators departed the college after each spent decades working for it.

Two of the administrators, the vice presidents for campus life and development, took jobs elsewhere, while a third, the vice president for human resources, retired. These departures coincided with a national trend of increased turnover for professional higher education staff; the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources found last year’s national turnover rate for higher education officials to be the highest it has been since the organization began tracking such data five years ago.

According to Audra Kahr, the vice president for finance and administration, lingering pressures on employment brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic are partially to blame.

No one in higher education is immune to that,” Kahr said.

Even with national trends, Lafayette fares worse than peer institutions. Today, the average senior leadership team member has had his or her current job for two years and seven months, giving Lafayette the shortest-tenured cabinet among comparably sized Patriot League schools.

“Whether it’s presidential tenures or senior administration tiers or even staffing across higher education period, people decided maybe they want to do something else,” Hurd said. “There’s some reset going on here across the whole sector. But I do think one of the things I love about the team that we’re building right now is they’re committed to Lafayette and I have every belief that they’ll be here for a long time.”

According to Daniel Weiss, who preceded Byerly as Lafayette’s president, changes in top leadership can signal changes in priorities for the administration.

“I think it’s important that each administration, each president have the right to build and support the staff they need to do the job the way they see it,” said Weiss, who served as Lafayette’s president from 2005 to 2013. “When I arrived at Lafayette, there was a good staff there, but there wasn’t the staff that I needed to build the organization the way I wanted to build it, and in some cases, that means very talented people. We just didn’t see eye to eye on what it was that needed to happen.”

Four members of Weiss’ cabinet left the college during his eight-year-long presidency, with two of the four departing in the first two years.

John O’Keefe ‘96, the vice president for information technology, has worked under Hurd, Byerly, Weiss and Arthur Rothkopf ‘55, Weiss’ predecessor – he is one of three senior leadership team members to have been under the college’s employ for more than six years. O’Keefe said that “it’s important to have a good mix of people” in leadership.

“If we just promoted everybody from within, and the entire senior leadership team was people who’ve been here 25 years, that would be a different kind of problem than if everybody was new and nobody had that history,” O’Keefe said.

Mid-level administrators have generally worked for the college longer than senior administrators. The average dean, for example, has been on Lafayette’s payroll for roughly three years longer than their senior leadership team counterparts, though the amount of time they have been in their current positions is remarkably short: one year and three months, on average, according to The Lafayette’s analysis.

Every single dean position has changed hands since 2021, in part due to a shuffling of the advising office. The departures of some mid-level and low-level administrators have raised eyebrows.

Some departures “happened suddenly and unexpectedly, and the announcements were made in the middle of the summer break or during the winter interim, when the College community was dispersed and largely away from campus,” wrote Ziolkowski. “A colleague might be here one day and gone the next, and instantaneously all references to the person are scrubbed from the College website.”

Two such scrubbings occurred in the past month: Brian Samble, the former dean of students, was erased from Lafayette’s website days before the college publicly announced his departure; the college’s announcement was preceded by an article in The Lafayette. No announcement was made regarding the departure of Christine Blaha, the former dining head.

“Following the announcement of one recent departure of a senior administrator, later the very same day, I looked for the person’s page on the College website, and it was gone,” Ziolkowski wrote. “What appeared instead was the photo of a leopard in high grass, with the logo: ‘Page Not Spotted. We’re sorry, but the page you’re looking for does not exist or has moved.’ It was as if the leopard had eaten the disappeared colleague.”

Andreas Pelekis ’26, Madeline Marriott ’24 and Selma O’Malley ’26 contributed reporting.

Correction 1/28/2024: A previous version of this article included a misspelling of the surname of David Shulman in a graph.

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About the Contributor
Trebor Maitin, Managing Editor
Pennsylvania enthusiast.

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  • P

    PardsAnonJan 30, 2024 at 9:47 am

    This article is a great start, but it doesn’t go far enough. There’s difference between standard turnover around the start of a new president’s tenure and an established president driving away staff and leaders because of their own lack of vision and their inability to effectively lead. What’s happened here is the latter.

    Responsibility lands at the doorstep of the freshly landscaped and walled-off President’s House. President Hurd’s most noteworthy accomplishment to date is the collective centuries of institutional knowledge that has evacuated under her tenure. It’s ironic that her “love and family” facade has been built at the expense of these and other professionals who have truly loved and advanced the Lafayette family for countless decades. It’s heartbreaking how unrecognizable our alma mater has become.

    There’s still time for alums to call for votes of no confidence from the faculty and board ahead of any bicentennial celebration.

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  • A

    Alum ‘22Jan 26, 2024 at 6:40 pm

    Excellent Reporting Trebor!

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    • A

      Alum '73Jan 31, 2024 at 1:29 pm

      Yes indeed! The entire editorial team should be very proud of this sort of well-researched journalism. It’s important to be able to examine and criticize leadership in an appropriate way, especially when there may be internal and/or institutional pressure to the contrary. Keep up the good work!

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      Alum '73Jan 31, 2024 at 2:46 pm

      Yes indeed! The entire editorial team should be very proud of this sort of well-researched journalism. It’s important to be able to examine and criticize leadership in an appropriate way, especially when there may be internal and/or institutional pressure to the contrary. Keep up the good work!

      Reply
  • A

    AlumniJan 26, 2024 at 5:18 am

    Ayana Brown was also fired from alumni relations in September with not a word to the campus community. Ayana was at the college for less than a year.

    Multiple positions have been left unfilled for MUCH longer than necessary (look at the failed search to replace Katy Bednarsky, as one example). Lafayette will come to an institutional reckoning when they realize that they’ve lost more deeply passionate faculty and staff (from all levels) and are unable to hire more due to a uncompetitive salary and culture issues on campus.

    Reply