Administrators say turnover has not affected growth of projects

by Gigi Grigorian | 7/26/19 2:00am

In recent years, Dartmouth has seen considerable turnover in its administrative positions. In June alone, Alexis Abramson began her tenure as dean of the Thayer School of Engineering, and Kathryn Lively was named permanent dean of the College after serving as interim dean for a year. Last October, Joseph Helble was named provost of the College.

Despite the turnover, Lively and Helble said the growth of institutional projects has not been affected, due to communication, the professional staff in the offices, and smart hiring practices. 

However, according to Student Assembly ambassador of student life Carlos Polanco ’21, SA projects did slow down in these times of transition. As administrators adjusted to their new positions, Polanco said that SA worked to generate the same sense of urgency among administrators that the students already held.

“The greatest barrier is clearly communicating our goals and making sure they align,” Polanco said. He added that SA’s effort to address food insecurity took longer than expected due to turnover, but he said that Lively has helped push the project forward. Now that upper-level administrative positions seem stably filled, Polanco said he believes that SA projects will resume their normal pace.

Addressing the turnover in the College’s administration, Helble said that while there have been “higher than usual” rates of turnover for the provost and the dean of the College, there has been “incredible stability” in the leadership of Thayer and the Tuck School of Business.

Lively said she attributes the turnover in the dean’s office to the fact that different models have been used to lead the office, with varying degrees of success. 

“Sometimes it’s been a professional staff person, sometimes it’s been a faculty person, sometimes it’s been a co-led model,” Lively said. “Looking back over the history of Dartmouth, this role has been most effective when it’s a faculty member, given the culture of the College as it is a small liberal arts college that has teaching and research at its core.”

Because the dean position would “benefit from stability,” Lively said that Helble searched for a candidate who would serve in the role long-term. Lively said she plans to be in the position for more than three to four years.

Lively added that she thinks the transition from faculty member to administrator is difficult given the significant differences between the roles, and the position sees frequent turnover as a result.

Rebecca Biron, who preceded Lively as dean of the College and now serves as director of the Leslie Center for the Humanities, stepped down from the position after three years because she wanted to return to teaching and research. Biron said she had hoped to continue teaching one course per year while also serving as dean, but the time commitments of the dean position prevented her from doing so.

She added that she felt returning to teaching after three years was appropriate, given the “stable” status of projects she was involved in as dean. She cited the establishment of the house communities and the implementation of many aspects of Moving Dartmouth Forward as examples.

“I felt that the next phase of decision-making could profitably be undertaken by a new person,” Biron said.

When Lively assumed the position of interim dean, Biron called the transition “successful” and said that projects were not stalled. Lively, one of the original house professors, had previously worked with the dean’s office to develop the house communities, and was able to smoothly transition into the role. Biron said that these experiences in student affairs and residential education gave Lively a background that she could use as dean.

Anthropology professor Sienna Craig has assumed Lively’s former role of South House professor.

Internal hiring, as took place with Lively transitioning from teaching to dean, is a common practice at Dartmouth. Biron said that past experiences working with administrative offices provide a strong foundation for individuals as they move into administrative roles. Chief financial and administrative officer of the Thayer dean’s office Christine Cook said that this benefit was also seen when engineering professor Laura Ray served as interim dean of Thayer after Helble moved from this role to the provost position.

“[Under Ray’s leadership], certain things moved very quickly because she already had a good handle on the details of our curriculum,” Cook said. She added that Ray was also known and respected by faculty before working as interim dean, which helped her navigate the role.

At Dartmouth, outgoing and incoming leaders have also had prior existing relationships, which facilitate better communication during the transition. Because Biron and Lively had a professional relationship from their joint work in developing the house communities, Biron said that they met several times to discuss ongoing work of the office. 

Because Helble was dean of Thayer for 13 years before transitioning to the role of provost, he had already collaborated with interim provost David Kotz, a computer science professor and his predecessor in the provost role, in a professional capacity.

“When I was named as provost, an informal transition began almost immediately,” Helble said.

Helble was named as provost in May 2018, but he did not assume the role until October 2018. During that five-month period, according to Helble, Kotz included him in the decision-making processes, even though the transition had not yet officially occurred. He added that he has reached out to Kotz several times since he officially became provost to ask for background on issues, ongoing discussions and policies.

“[Kotz] helped facilitate an incredibly smooth and seamless transition,” Helble said.