Academic Affairs Separation
A Systematic, Reasoned, and Compassionate Approach
Almost every academic leader will have to successfully work through an experience that leads to considering separation of some member from the Academic Affairs team. The reasons for separation may be rooted in performance, lack of teamwork, actions and decisions inconsistent with the mission, lack of student-centeredness, changes in institutional direction, or better protection of the productivity of other members of the Academic Affairs team, among other considerations.
Decisions to separate a member of the team should never be made when angry or after one episode. One must always seriously consider whether a better replacement is likely to be available for hire and whether the individual involved is incapable of improving sufficiently to meet legitimate institutional expectations. To be fair to the administrator to be separated, the team, and the institution, the separation review and action process must be systematic, reasoned, and compassionate.
To significantly minimize the need for separations at any institution, policies and practices must be put into place and regularly used to minimize that prospect prior to hiring. First, a very well-thought-out, clearly articulated, and fairly enforced employee performance review process should be in place. This should likely include a 360-degree review process every three years for all employees.
Additionally, administrative leadership should be up-to-date on personnel practices and legal requirements regarding providing opportunities for improvement of performance arising from annual reviews and the required documentation of such reviews. The initial hiring process needs to include employees who will report to the administrator to be hired, as well as to students, peers that he or she will need to collaborate and plan with, and the chief Academic Affairs administrator.
The Academic Affairs team should have regularly scheduled bimonthly meetings and each administrator reporting to the chief Academic Affairs officer should meet weekly to discuss issues, strategies, and key actions taken or planned by that reporting administrator. These meetings need to be characterized by their frankness and thoroughness so that the chief Academic Affairs officer is not surprised. The team must use these meetings to have frank discussions about any differences in interpreting and achieving the academic mission of the college or university.
For the most part, the chief Academic Affairs administrator should refrain from an open-door policy because this oftentimes leads to excessive and premature conversations reflecting rumor mills or personal agendas. Finally, the chief Academic Affairs officer should deliver effective annual team retreats and also develop and communicate a financing strategy available for use by all team members for individual or team development.
Despite all these systematic and well-reasoned policies and practices, there will come occasions when separation must be seriously considered despite its risks to students, the team, or the institution. This situation will often not be clear during the hiring process; it may be discovered years later during regular team meetings or scheduled personnel evaluation processes. Illnesses can occur as well as changes in personal behaviors and habits. Marriage difficulties, debt, or family problems can cause a person to act differently than when he or she was initially hired.
Conflicts within the team from new hires may also occur over a period of time, especially when developing a new Academic Affairs team. This can lead to disagreements, dissention, and discord among team members, and someone may need to leave to reestablish team effectiveness. So one must anticipate this problem and plan for it. Being open about the potential problem with the team from the outset and periodically reminding the team about it can be an incentive for the team to better tolerate periodic short-term problems. This can also act as an insurance policy against team overreaction to any separation, especially if the administrator to be separated is popular on campus.
If the basic policies, practices, and communications patterns are already firmly in place, then the reasoned approach to separation requires open and candid conversations between the individual involved and the chief Academic Affairs officer. These conversations should be open ended to find out the underlying causes of the change in performance, behavior, or actions inconsistent with the mission. These initial conversations should not be rushed. The leader should focus on active listening for at least 90 percent of the conversation and periodically use clarifying statements to see whether he or she has understood correctly the origins and the depth of the problem.
After these open-ended personal conversations, the Academic Affairs leader should shift the conversation to one specifically utilizing the results of 360-degree reviews, conversations with other team members, and other forms of institutionally relevant data on the inadequacy of the administrator’s recent performance and behavior. Here the challenge is to continue at least a 75 percent listening stance to provide adequate time for articulation of the issues as seen through the eyes of the administrator to be separated.
These meetings should lead to formal signed paperwork on the issues discussed and any remedies and timelines for improvement defined. Normally, an outside limit of 90 days or one semester should be placed to achieve expected improvements. Offers of financial assistance or training for improvement should be made during these sessions as appropriate. These documents should have the signatures of the chief Academic Affairs officer and the individual being considered for separation.
Following the results of these meetings and reflection by the chief Academic Affairs officer, a review of the situation should be made by the Academic Affairs leader. This second reflection and review process should assess legal issues, team morale issues, likelihood of an effective hire being made in a reasonable time, and a review of any improvements of performance warranting an extension of time to improve performance. This review must be one where the Academic Affairs leader seeks counsel of others in confidence, whether those are other administrators outside of Academic Affairs, Academic Affairs team members, college or university legal counsel, or the Human Resources Department. This is often a time for a beneficial consultation with an outside administrator who is more senior, who is not in the region of the university or college, and who might provide impartial advice and last-minute suggestions on how to best handle the actual separation if it is to take place.
If the separation decision is made, then the focus needs to shift to communicating the decision and to minimizing any negative consequences for students, the institution, and the team. Here is where compassion needs to become evident to the individual to be separated and any team members likely to take the separation personally and emotionally, thereby affecting their performance.
The first communication needs to be with the administrator to be separated, documenting in writing the reasons for the separation. These reasons should first be thoroughly vetted with the Human Resources Department administration and often legal counsel as well. These reasons should also be communicated in the same meeting that the chief Academic Affairs officer makes promises to help the individual’s search for another position, if the reasons for separation do not involve illegal behaviors or administrative. It is important that any separation be as compassionate as possible given the potential severe negative implications of the separation for future employment.
Separation should never occur during the semester or the beginning of the academic year unless absolutely necessary. It is best that separation occurs after semesters to minimize negative impacts to the Academic Affairs team and students. Probably the most opportune time is toward the end of the spring semester, providing ample time for improvement, training, and communications strategies to be in place. Also, it is preferable that it does not occur on a Monday or early in the day, but rather in the afternoon and on a Friday.
In processing the separation, make sure to provide opportunities for the separated administrator to define what assistance she or he would like to receive in achieving a new position. In these meetings take serious note of all the achievements the separated administrator wants you to know about to use in your letter of reference or in responding effectively to phone calls about the administrator’s strengths and limitations. The more detail and clarity you can get from these conversations, the better you will be able to help the administrator find a new and more compatible position for her or his talents, ambitions, and capabilities. This will allow you to be straightforward and consistent in all your responses to inquiries and allow you to write a favorable recommendation.
Concluding the separation process, you should provide opportunities for all team members to discuss the separation confidentially with you, if they wish. Also, at the first team meeting after the separation, you should make the case for separation and allow for questions from the team of what it means for the team moving forward. You need to use these communication events to minimize the negative effects on team performance, particularly if members of the team were close to the separated individual or if they fear that you may be planning to separate other members of the team to rebuild it in the near future.
Henry W. Smorynski is a Midland University leadership fellow.