Lawrence University has a lot of staff members beginning their first full year at the institution due to both the large number of staff that left last year as well as the new positions being created and hired.
Starting in Spring Term 2021, when former President Mark Burnstein announced he would be stepping down from his position, and President Laurie Carter was selected for the job, Lawrence’s cabinet started to change. Also in Spring 2021, former Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Kimberly Barrett stepped down from her position. Her role was filled in October 2021 with the hiring of Eric Mayes.
Throughout the 2021-2022 school year and over the summer, many cabinet members and other administrators departed the institution, including former Dean of Students Curt Lauderdale, former Vice President for Enrollment Ken Anselment, former Vice President for Student Life Chris Card, former Vice President for Finance and Administration Mary Alma Noonan, former Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Kodat and former Vice President for Communications Megan Scott. Ashley Lewis was hired as Associate Vice President for Enrollment in order to boost student retention. Additionally, former Athletic Director Kim Tatro stepped down in February 2022 and was replaced by Jason Imperati.
Lauderdale was replaced by Chris Clarke as Dean of Students, who took over for Card as Interim Vice President for Student Life after Card’s departure. Dean of Students Brittany Bell, at the time serving as Associate Dean of Students for Diversity, Engagement and Student Leadership, was selected to fill his role. Additionally, Samir Datta was hired as Vice President for Administration and Finance. Interim Vice President for Enrollment Tom Crady, Interim Associate Vice President for Communications Kelly Landis and Interim Provost and Dean of the Faculty Peter Blitstein have stepped in for Anselment, Scott and Kodat, respectively. According to Clarke, Landis is stepping away from her role.
Bell said that her role has been a big shift from her previous role, and that she’s now able to take student and staff concerns directly to the administration. She complimented the cabinet members and said she has enjoyed getting to know all of them and praised Carter’s experience.
Crady praised the cabinet members and the staff in the Financial Aid and Admissions Offices, and called Lawrence a wonderful school. He expressed hope for its future.
Datta commented on the great amount of learning that he has done in his role and is excited about the future of Lawrence too.
“President Carter has a vision for Lawrence and I am really excited to support it,” said Datta. “The cabinet works well together, and we are all on the same page in terms of where we want to see Lawrence. I am looking forward to helping Lawrence continue to do well and thrive in the future.”
Mayes, whose title has been expanded to Vice President for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Institutional Research commented that the transition between the Burnstein and Carter administrations has been “great.” Mayes added that his office has been focusing on listening sessions and developing strategies and initiatives to address the needs of the Lawrence community and is hopeful for the future of Lawrence.
“With the new [Cabinet] currently in place and those that will soon join us, I’m confident that our collective capacity working collaboratively with our community of stakeholders can help chart the next course of success for Lawrence University,” Mayes said.
Administrators have not been the only staff that have departed. The 2021-2022 school year began with four Residence Hall Directors (RHDs), Kate Slisz, Travis John, Donielle Ericksen and Jordyn Plieseis, and by the end of the year, all had left. This year, the Area Coordinators (ACs), which is the new title for RHDs, were all new, and one, Ryan Schmit, left abruptly less than two weeks into the school year. Additionally, former Associate Dean of Students for Residential Education Amy Uecke and former Assistant Director of Residential Education and Housing Bonny Sucherman left at the end of the last school year, meaning that almost the entire team of housing staff were new this year.
Kate Slisz is the former RHD for Colman, Brokaw, Big Exec and Draheim Halls, a position they served in for one year during the 2021-2022 academic year. They spoke on the record about the factors that contributed to their departure.
Slisz mentioned feeling a lack of support from the administration, feeling that feedback from staff isn’t listened to and not feeling that Lawrence is able to adapt to the times enough to support the students. Specifically, they said that Lawrence doesn’t invest enough in housing facilities, isn’t a queer-friendly campus and recalled a time when they and students from Colman had to plead with the institution to get an accessibility paddle switch installed in front of the hall. They were surprised that there was so much resistance to this. Situations like these made it difficult for them to stay at Lawrence for another year.
“It’s hard to stay on board when you know it should be better,” said Slisz.
Slisz also referenced working conditions for staff as a reason for leaving. Staff at Lawrence are underpaid and overworked, according to Slisz, which contributes to low morale. After Sucherman left, Slisz recalled that the rest of the housing staff were expected to pick up the slack but weren’t compensated for their additional work. Slisz stated that feeling underappreciated, overworked and not listened to by the administration was a big reason why they left, and they feel that this also contributes to low staff morale.
An anymous former student, referred to as A echoed many of Slisz’s sentiments and said that they and others feel that the pay is “shit.”
A former Assistant Dean who spent a long time at Lawrence, who will be referred to as B, feels that the fundamental issues contributing to low staff morale include inadequate pay and respect and not being listened to by the administration. B stated that it felt Lawrence only cared about its image and finances during their time here. B added that it felt that issues were consistently pushed off and that the institution only provides lip service to issues such as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and supporting students holistically.
B shared anecdotes of situations that contributed to their departure. They felt that Lawrence didn’t prioritize supporting first generation college students, even though Lawrence has a lot of them. They felt that they were asked to take on a lot of the work to support these students and were underpaid for it.
B also discussed an incident during the early months of COVID-19, in which every staff member on campus, including administrators, took a pay cut in order to avoid layoffs. They felt that the cuts the administration took weren’t proportionate to how much more money they made than this staff member did. In Spring of 2021, when the pay cut was reversed, staff were not provided with cost-of-living adjustments, typical for every July. They felt that the administration should have staved off fully reinstating their own pay in order to provide a cost-of-living adjustment for staff and show their support. They added that their refusal to do so made them feel that Lawrence wasn’t truly committed to class diversity and supporting its staff.
Although B feels that Lawrence has a lot of positive aspects, such as staff being able to develop close relationships with students and staff being able to explore non-punitive options for discipline, it became increasingly difficult for B to represent an institution that they didn’t feel was living up to the values it professed or engaging them in the decisions made, which affected their morale.
“The lack of transparency around decisions made by leadership made staff feel like they weren’t important or engaged in the process,” said B.
Another side of staff that have seen a lot of turnover has been the staff that interact with student activities and sustainability, including former Assistant Director of Student Activities Charity Rasmussen, former Director of Student Activities Greg Griffin and former Consultant to Student Life Systems and Director of the Warch Campus Center Jodi Bonikowske.
Students who were on campus over the summer of 2022 spoke on the record about the impacts of this turnover.
Junior Anders Hanhan, co-chair of the Sustainability Committee of the Lawrence University Community Council (LUCC), feels that staff are asked to do a lot without being paid adequately and feels that this contributed to former Sustainability and Special Projects Fellow Grace Subat departing Lawrence. Subat was Lawrence’s only full-time sustainability staff member during the last school year. Hanhan noted that over the summer, he did the bulk of the sustainability work for the coming year. Carter Robinson, has been selected as Student Activities and Sustainability Coordinator. Hanhan is glad that there is someone filling the role but worries that without having sustainability be covered by a full-time staff role, the staff who fill the role will continue to get overworked.
Hanhan also noted that over the summer the role of Dean of the Career Center was vacant, although according to Carter, that role has been filled. Carter addressed Subat’s leaving as well. According to her, Subat left because the grant that funded her position ended.
Sophomore Lillian Biolo Thompson, who works as co-president of the Student Organization for University Planning (SOUP), felt that the departure of student activities staff, especially Rasmussen, negatively affected student activities over the summer. Thompson added that it felt that staff from the Diversity and Intercultural Center (D&IC) and the Office of Student Engagement, Activities and Leadership (SEAL) were expected to pick up the slack. They feel that staff at Lawrence are asked to do a lot more than they should be expected to do, and that this all contributes to low staff morale.
“I want the staff to not hate working here,” said Thompson. “That ended up happening to a lot of people…I can see why they did…so much pressure was put on them.”
Senior Matvei Mozhaev commented that this staff turnover is a byproduct of necessary changes happening at Lawrence.
Carter, Clarke, Bell and Director of Human Resources Tina Harrig responded to the claims made by students and former staff.
Clarke was unable to comment on the specific circumstances surrounding staff departures but did lament the fact that the staff departures came at a less than optimal time. He commented that there is a particular time of year when staff tend to leave, but these departures were largely outside of that timeframe.
Clarke added that organizations like SOUP and SEAL are undergoing a revitalization. According to him, Bell’s elevation to Dean of Students allowed Lawrence to create new roles such as Director of the Diversity and Intercultural Center (D&IC) and Director of SEAL, which have not been hired yet. Clarke added that these new positions, Robinson’s hiring and Wojciechowski coming from the D&IC to serve as Assistant Director of Student Activities are part of this revitalization. Clarke added that meeting its sustainability goals will be something the university is intent on even in the wake of Subat’s departure.
Although Clarke would not comment on specific accusations made by former staff, he feels that a lot of the RHD positions that were vacated tend to be high-turnover positions. He recalls that when he first came on as Dean of Students, he met with and took feedback from every staff member in housing and toured each residence hall. Through this, he was able to identify about 30 consistent problems that were identified. He hopes that by working with Bell, hiring a new Dean of the First-Years and bringing on staff with experience, that Lawrence can continue to improve the staff and student experience with housing.
“Sometimes when people don’t see immediate action…or the specific action that they want in a situation they think that nothing is being done,” said Clarke. “But behind the scenes…from the president down there has been a lot of action, consideration, reflection and planning to do better and be better for the students.”
Bell commented that she did not feel overworked and that she enjoyed taking on the challenges that came with her job. She added that she wouldn’t be here if she didn’t see improvement. She also gave credit to the DEI office and Affinity Coordinator Helen Boyd Kraemer for helping to improve the work environment for staff from underrepresented communities.
Bell also addressed concerns about student organizations and mentioned the new system in which debit cards have been given to student organizations to streamline the funding process. She agreed with Clarke that these groups are undergoing a revitalization.
Carter also talked about the Great Resignation, the recent COVID-19 fueled spike in staff leaving their jobs all over the country. She feels that Lawrence needs to have a better workplace culture despite the fact that the Great Resignation has affected every workplace. She mentioned efforts to pay staff more and give staff Fridays off in July over the summer as examples of the administration working to value staff more.
Carter feels that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the workplace too. She commented that when she came to Lawrence, the staff were exhausted from the pandemic.
Carter was not able to comment on individual experiences of staff but said that Lawrence is being intentional about improving the staff experience, including hiring Kraemer and hosting listening sessions where staff can share concerns. She pointed out that the Strategic Investment Initiative and Guiding Coalitions take student, staff and faculty feedback into consideration.
Carter agreed with Slisz’s complaint about housing not being invested in.
“I walked through every residence hall and house on this campus,” said Carter. “As a former residence life professional, I was not happy with the conditions of our halls.”
She added that deferred maintenance has made it difficult to make these renovations, but the work needs to continue and is continuing.
Kraemer discussed efforts to revitalize the Employee Resource Groups, which in her words create community, programming and support for different communities in the workplace. There are six groups, and Kraemer heads the LGBTQ+ group. She said that before Carter arrived, the Employee Resource Groups were run on a volunteer basis, but that Mayes has been working with her on revitalizing the program along with Ariela Rosa.
Harrig was not able to comment on B’s complaint about the pay cut reinstatement and lack of cost-of-living adjustment but discussed efforts going forward to increase staff retention. These efforts include pay increases and creating a working group to examine workplace culture at Lawrence, according to Harrig.