Editor’s Note: What does losing a new leader in two months say about Columbia?

By Megan Bennett

Retention among Columbia’s leaders is not a new struggle, but recently a high-level employee who likely broke the record for quickest turnover proves it may be a difficult place for outsiders to stay .

As reported on the Front Page, the college’s first faculty ombudsperson Connie Meyer unexpectedly resigned March 29, less than two months after Senior Vice President and Provost Stan Wearden announced her arrival in an email to faculty and staff on Feb. 2. 

This position, one that was given great prestige and is housed in the college administration under the provost’s budget, was heavily discussed by the Faculty Senate before the search began.

Meyer, who also works as an independent contractor for conflict management and has Harvard Law School workshop training in the field, was formally introduced to the Faculty Senate on March 10, no more than two weeks before Wearden’s  announcement of her resignation, and she spoke about her position and responsibilities. Now, the college will have to begin looking for her replacement just a few months after its last search.

Though college officials and Meyer are staying tight-lipped on the reason for her departure—both parties either declined or could not be reached for an explanation—the college community can glean a few outcomes from this mysterious announcement.

The first is that employees at this level often have extensive contracts that will lock them into their position for a certain amount of time. For an employee to decide to break that contract, something no employee would take lightly, and do it so soon displays an urgency to leave that could be due to either Columbia’s culture or operations that a newcomer was not used to or comfortable with. This should weigh on long-term faculty and staff’s minds regarding the overall health of the institution’s employee relations if someone from the outside was able to determine quickly it was not a good fit. It needs to be determined if this is a stand-alone case or a chronic problem.

Another takeaway that should worry faculty, staff and even students is that external searches will always come with some kind of expense, and having to do two searches within one semester for the same position is time and money lost for the college. In a time when academic departments and student service offices are trying to salvage resources, there should be discussions collegewide about if this position actually needs an immediate replacement.

The administration—the Provost’s Office specifically—should also reflect on whether the ombudsperson’s job description and responsibilities were properly marketed and if Meyer was not given enough—or too much—guidance once she began. Not only this, but they should also determine if  the responsibilities could be distributed to a current employee or employees as a way of committing to the college’s cost-saving measures.

This resignation cannot be simply brushed off as a loss that was unavoidable because it was Meyer’s decision to leave; Wearden needs to analyze it before any searches for this position—or any other job—begins or ends.

A quick and high turnover rate is not a reputation the college needs as it searches for not only for the ombudsperson, but also for other high-level jobs including the newly vacant chief of staff, dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and other available leadership roles either internally or externally. Employee retention is one of the most vital elements that contributes to an institution’s ability to attract people, employer-employee trust and overall workplace culture.

Columbia having such evident issues keeping skilled, seemingly driven individuals attached to the college will make it difficult to recruit higher-ups with similar qualifications, which is the only way for it to make effective changes that could improve some of its major weak areas.