As the Fall 2019 term begins, my thoughts have been turning naturally to the significant transition just accomplished to welcome and orient a new provost to the University of Puget Sound. A senior staff colleague observed along the way that there is a robust literature on presidential transitions, but limited counsel for chief academic officers – something she found a little surprising given the longevity of CAOs is actually shorter than that for presidents. Higher Education Publications data for 2016-2017 record provosts holding the second highest turnover percentage among college leaders, with 21% being new in the role for 2017, followed by presidents at 18% (https://hepinc.com/newsroom/college-administrator-data-turnover-rates-2016-present).
Similarly, Council of Independent Colleges publications, based on American Council of Education data from 2009 and 2013, show that CAOs on average serve four to five years (H.V. Hartley III and E. E. Godin, A Study of Chief Academic Officers of Independent Colleges and Universities, 2010; A Study of Chief Academic Officers of Independent Colleges and Universities: Updates from 2013). Matching these statistics with commentaries such as “Attrition Among Chief Academic Officers Threatens Strategic Plans” (T. Mann, Chronicle of Higher Education, June 20, 2010) and “Why Relentless Administrative Turnover Makes It Hard for Us to Do Our Jobs” (T. McGlynn, Chronicle of Higher Education, March 28, 2018) suggests that attention to CAO transitions is important.
At least three factors affect the suggestions offered below. I had the good fortune to serve as CAO for fifteen years, hired in a national search from within my institution. I chose to step away after that length of service for positive reasons and my successor is an experienced CAO. I recognize that your situation may be different. Nonetheless, three guiding questions can support a strong transition: What does your institution need at the given moment? What does your successor need for a good start? How you can be most helpful?
Puget Sound is entering year three of a strategic planning process, with significant focus on the undergraduate curriculum. No doubt your institution is at some phase of planning work. What are the key documents the next CAO needs at her fingertips? Here, faculty worked intensively throughout 2018-19 and over the summer, toward a late August workshop, with robust interaction on Google shared drives and multiple Slack channels. My goal has been to make sure the curriculum proposals, external research data, and salient historical documents are readily accessible for the new provost and senior colleagues on the President’s Cabinet shared drive. This includes a draft academic operational plan and a comprehensive to-date cost estimate for curricular plan components. In short, try to hand off the strategic planning baton soundly.
As an outgoing CAO, you have a sense of where opportunities exist for your successor: share them. For example, what faculty tenure-lines will open in the next year or two, and what opportunities do they offer for valuable redefinition, or to retain a national distinction? Whether or not those moves will be taken up, noting them for your successor will help him be alert for opportunities for strategic conversation with department chairs or other colleagues. The same suggestion would apply for potential staff changes.
Early on, consider how you will talk about the position and your institution’s strategic moment with search consultants. The transition is an important moment for honest self-reflection. What strengths allowed you to succeed? What aspects of the role were hard for you, and what talents might be especially helpful to enable the next CAO to build in those areas? What big academic projects are coming down the pike, or are needed? What does the college need in its next CAO to be even more effective in the next decade? While the news of my last year of service was not yet public, given I had discussed my decision with the president, I elected to speak to some of the foregoing topics in my penultimate performance review as a site for reflection, and subsequently shared some of those thoughts with the search consultant team. Be prepared to talk with search consultants and finalists about working with the president.
Starting a new academic year is always exciting! It can also have its own cheerful brutality, given the collection of events to attend or lead, speeches to prepare, and processes to begin—and never more so than the first time through. A year ago, I created a folder on my desktop with resolve to put there throughout the year speech texts, workshop outlines, faculty meeting reports, board meeting materials, and the like. Reality overtook virtue around the first of October, so the collection was incomplete, but at least guiding documents for the first six weeks were available to the new CAO in one place. Further, in outlining a plan for transition meetings with your successor, consider the benefit of approaching several of the meetings chronologically in order to provide a walk-through of campus event and process calendars for the first year.
Kairos, the idea of the fitting moment, also influenced choices about what background documents would be helpful to the transition. Just as placing strategic documents on the Cabinet shared drive made sense, so did gathering and organizing key academic and operational documents on the CAO shared drive. Copies of current year annual reports from the deans and other academic staff leaders, with responses to an additional prompt that invited reflection on what writers consider to be the three top strengths, challenges, and opportunities facing their office or program; completed performance reviews and position descriptions; and one-pagers from teaching departments and programs that allowed chairs and directors to introduce themselves and their key strengths and challenges comprised this collection of transition materials. The collection would have been stronger with budget summaries and data profiles from Institutional Research, but we did not have capacity for that in the context of the ongoing strategic curricular work. Point the new CAO to the location of annual assessment reports and seven-year curriculum review documents.
A final year of service inherently carries another chronological frame: Just as a house and yard likely never look better than on the day you list the property, or on the day you move out when the home inspection priorities have been addressed, so there is a consciousness throughout the year of what needs to be “cleaned up” for the next leader to come on board. Along the way, a colleague joked: “Just make three piles on your desk: things that are not a mess, things that are sort of a mess, and things that are a big mess!” That approach wasn’t how I wanted to leave the house, so I did try to finish up some things that had lagged, and to move some other issues to resolution (or at least as far as I could take them), but there were some unexpected developments that I was sad to leave open. It is important to identify significant personnel issues so that your successor is not surprised, but try to avoid layering on too much of your own characterization of the participants; they deserve the same fresh relationship start with the new provost or dean as everyone else on campus.
I was unprepared for the number of requests for appointments, particularly from senior faculty colleagues who wanted to discuss (especially) their own career paths prior to the end of the academic year. Possible load adjustments, alternative teaching or other projects, retirement options, or choices their department might make about their position came in a bit of a wave. It was easy to be gracious, as these are colleagues and friends, but I found myself conscious of the stated or unstated requests for documentation of what we had discussed. These colleagues knew me; they did not yet know “the new person.” At the same time, I needed to extend grace to the next CAO and not tie their hands by writing promissory notes. I resolved to document the conversations and to include language that allowed for future review by the individual, the department chair, and the provost. Being attentive, throughout a transition year, to documentation of your work is important.
George Justice, in a 2018 Chronicle essay, “I Was A Dean. And Now I’m Not,” observes: “The machine rolls on…you need to ensure that all the good people who report to you (or who are in your broad purview) are supported, commended, and prepared to continue doing great work under a new leader.” It is important to find a way that is right for you to signal and support their adjustment to a new relationship with you. Share the spotlight. Especially for your assistant, forecast that your ways of doing things will not be those of their next supervisor-colleague. Commend the strengths and talents of your successor.
My partner and I took our new CAO and partner to dinner on their second night in town (the first night, of course, being the president’s). We tried a new place together, and – even as four academics – kept it pretty social. My assistant and I planned a short welcome time, with refreshment, for immediate office colleagues on the opening morning of employment; she escorted the new provost to meet the rest of the team, and I went elsewhere. We had the good fortune of “two-a-day” meetings for the last two weeks of July, even as she started to her own program for meeting new colleagues and becoming familiar with the campus. From there, we have consulted as needed about emerging issues. I have continued to address the boxes of files moved out of the office that need sorting for shredding or archiving. If your institution is better in records retention and archiving policies and practices, both hard copy and digital, your house will likely be in better order in that regard. Overall, my resolution is to be helpful, if asked, and to stay out of the way.
Making space for others to do good work has been the most enjoyable component of serving as CAO. Investing in a strong transition, along with strategic curricular planning and regular duties, made the past year particularly full. My hopes are that the investment supports the strongest possible space for our new CAO to do great work, and that the suggestions above support your considerable success in going from or coming to a new role as well.