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The Impact of Leadership Turnover on Junior Faculty

Faculty Recruitment and Retention Leadership and Management

The Impact of Leadership Turnover on Junior Faculty

The tumultuous nature of the past year has impacted all faculty. One challenge that will continue into the future is leadership turnover. The departure of provosts, deans, and department chairs affects the commitment level and satisfaction of junior faculty (specifically nontenured who have less to lose by leaving). Leadership turnover fatigue is the feeling of exhaustion that occurs when formal leadership positions experience multiple instances of turnover in a short time period—for example, when junior faculty have three different chairs or directors in a five-year span. Institutions that experience leadership turnover may suffer from instability and additional turnover further down the institutional ladder.

Leadership, power, and vision

Academic leaders work with many different constituents to accomplish shared objectives and goals. Junior faculty are part of the constituency. One of the challenges junior faculty face when following a new leader is the exercise of power. Different leaders wield their power and authority in different ways; they may gain compliance through rewards, with threats of punishment, or by dint of sheer expertise (Elias, 2008). Adapting to how a given leader exercises power takes time, and frequent turnover leads junior faculty to seek constant approval as they struggle to adjust to changing leadership style.

A significant component of leadership is vision, or a “conceptual map for where the organization is headed” (Northouse, 2013, p. 200). Like the exercise of power, implementing a vision affects faculty. The people on the front lines are most often the ones charged with executing the vision. Leaders may also have different visions One leader may have placed emphasis on a particular aspect of the department that their successor ignores. These shifting winds leave junior faculty confused and frustrated.

Junior faculty and leadership turnover

Frequent leadership changes can easily dishearten and distract junior faculty. Building trust and establishing rapport with a leader takes time. If a leader vacates a position after a brief time, those left behind soon face the realization that they will be starting over with a new leader. Starting over means developing a new relationship and, in some cases, justifying one’s position or program. The justification is not born of nefarious reasons but rather provides the new leader with clarity related to programs, schedules, and majors. Alongside justification issues, topics that often arise when working with a new academic area leader include

  • providing a historical perspective over why things exist in their current form (these could be long- or short-term views);
  • explaining the intricacies involved among departmental relationships;
  • listening to ideas that may have been unsuccessful in the past but are possibilities now;
  • exploring research opportunities;
  • developing relationships with employers;
  • teaching on-ground versus online;
  • publishing;
  • participating in university service; and
  • establishing clear expectations of junior faculty.

When taken at face value, the above issues do not seem like significant challenges. But if leadership turnover is frequent, conversations about them may take place three or four times in a five-year period. The issues and conversations are not personal attacks on junior faculty, but going through the process on a yearly basis can be exhausting. The conflict is not the immediate fault of the new leader, who needs to become aware of department or division issues and become acquainted with faculty. But the reasons do not lessen the impact turnover can have on faculty. Effective change leadership strategies can make the transition process easier.

Change and organizational commitment

Turnover that leads to change requires flexibility on the part of the new leader and those in their charge. New leaders who follow a measured process for leading change are more likely to be successful than those who attempt to exert their will without support from faculty. Ken Blanchard (2007) provides recommendations for effectively leading change:

  • Expand opportunities for involvement and influence to obtain buy-in.
  • Explain the business case for change to make a compelling case.
  • Envision the future to create an inspiring vision.
  • Experiment to ensure alignment to have one voice and aligned infrastructure.
  • Enable and encourage employees to acquire new skills and commitment.

Additionally, Kotter (1996) describes a valuable eight-step approach to leading change:

  • Establish a sense of urgency.
  • Create a guiding coalition.
  • Develop a vision and strategy.
  • Communicate the change vision.
  • Encourage broad-based action.
  • Generate short-term wins.
  • Consolidate gains and produce more change.
  • Anchor new approaches in the culture.

Learning from Blanchard and Kotter can provide new academic leaders with a plan to lead the changes that may be needed. These changes will not be successful without the buy-in of those affected, including junior faculty.

If change initiatives are effectively led and turnover lessens, institutions should benefit from higher levels of organizational commitment. Greenberg (2011) defines organizational commitment as “the extent to which an individual identifies and is involved with his or her organization and/or is unwilling to leave it” (p. 201). Blau (1987) explores commitment from two perspectives: behavioral and attitudinal. Behavioral commitment means an individual is bound by salary or tenure and it has become too costly for them to leave, making them committed to the organization. Attitudinal commitment means the employee identifies with the organization’s goals and values. Junior faculty seeking tenure may be more willing to stay for the short term for behavioral commitment reasons, but attitudinal commitment is what keeps employees for the long term. Effective leadership is built around attitudinal commitment. Colleges and universities that express their values and goals and base each decision the mission will be more successful at retaining employees and limiting turnover at all levels.


Blanchard, K. (2007). Leading at a higher level. Pearson Prentice Hall.

Blau, G. (1987). Conceptualizing how job involvement and organizational commitment affect turnover and absenteeism. The Academy of Management Review, 12(2), 288–300.

Elias, S. (2008). Fifty years in the workplace: The evolution of the French and Raven power taxonomy. Journal of Management History, 14(3), 267–283.

Greenberg, J. (2011). Behavior in organizations. Prentice Hall.

Kotter, J. (1996). Leading change. Harvard Review Press.

Northouse, P. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. Sage Publications.

Anthony Schumacher, PhD, is an assistant professor and chair of organizational management and ethical leadership at Thomas More University.


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