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HR Directors Speak Out

Four human resources department leaders get candid about how they're meeting campus recruitment and retention challenges and other concerns.
University Business, May 2008

Wendy Davis, the human resources officer at Central Wyoming College, has worked in higher education human resources for the past 17 years. She serves on the National CUPA-HR Board of Directors, chairs the TIAA-CREF Direct Client Advisory Council, and was a member of the 2005 CUPA-HR Think Tank on the topic of the Future of Human Resources. Davis has also served on the HR-Client Advisory Team for Datatel and the State of Wyoming Employees' Insurance Advisory Board. Davis's department at Central Wyoming supports 430 faculty and staff.


Jeff Strese was already a veteran counselor and consultant when he joined Southern Methodist University in Dallas in 1995 as an organizational development specialist. In December 2007, after more than 12 years with the university-during which time he served as director of recruitment and retention, and associate director of human resources-he was appointed as SMU's director of human resources. An adjunct faculty member in the Cox School of Business, he has taught undergraduate and MBA courses in change management. SMU currently has 686 faculty and 1,541 staff members.


Christopher Lee is associate vice chancellor of human resources for the Virginia Community College System, which includes 23 community colleges on more than 40 campuses and currently has more than 6,200 full-time and 7,400 part-time faculty and staff. Each campus has its own chief HR officer, and Lee's office leads with policy development, training, support, and operational advice. Lee has served as the chief HR officer at three other higher ed institutions. He is a member of the Human Resources Certification Institute board of directors and has participated in "thought leaders" summits for CUPA-HR and the Society for Human Resource Management. Lee has also authored two HR-related books.


Lori Mulder was named director of human resources at Hope College (Mich.) in 2000. She had worked in Hope's business office since 1996. An active member in the Michigan College & University Personnel Association and the Lakeshore Human Resource Management Association, Mulder co-coordinated a 2006 state effort to draft and adopt legislation for a Michigan subminimum wage bill (in response to a large minimum wage increase). She has spoken regionally and worked with various groups to address wellness program best practices. Hope's HR department supports about 750 faculty and staff as well as manages about 1,600 student employees.


Wendy Davis: Getting it all done! It seems that the more we do, the more we have to do. In order to get our arms around the challenge, we are moving many routine processes to online service, which frees up staff time for more strategic efforts.

Jeff Strese: We try to provide as many services in an automated way as we cannot to take away the human element but to free up our staff to provide the human element when it's really needed, such as for counseling. We have just under 20 people in our department. It's a fairly good-sized staff for the size of our university. For the past five or six years, we have really put a lot of resources into leadership development. Usually that's really undersourced or outsourced.

'For higher ed, egalitarianism is a very high ideal. It's certainly a noble one. But capitalism is built upon supply and demand.' -Christopher Lee, Virginia Community College System

Christopher Lee: Dwindling resources or competing demands for resources affect everybody. When there is a slight downturn in the economy, that reduces revenue the state has coming in, and they're reducing our share. At the same time, HR is becoming more integral in institutional operations, so there is an increasing demand for HR services-related to increasing regulations or the expectation that HR is involved in workforce planning and succession planning. We want to be involved in planning. But with all the increasing demands on HR staff and resources, you can see the problem. No one's throwing us millions of dollars and lots of staff to meet those demands.

Lori Mulder: There is no question that the rising cost of benefits, particularly health insurance, is a challenge. HR leaders need to continually be searching for creative ideas and be prepared to think outside of the box when it comes to benefit management. Also, there is intense pressure from many constituencies to keep tuition increases to a minimum. At the same time, there are significant internal pressures to keep faculty salaries competitive. Finding the balance between these two variables can be difficult, especially for smaller institutions with limited resources.

Strese:The decentralization issue is a challenge in the university environment. A lot of the decision-making around staffing-and how staff are organized and how you deal with professional development and orientation-is a fairly decentralized approach because it's a decentralized culture. We try to provide program initiatives to cross any department or staff division. We have to find this balance between a standardized approach and personalized training, leaving a little wiggle room on how we can customize to meet the needs of each division.

Davis: It is imperative that faculty and staff be on the same page. HR can help to facilitate that by ensuring information dissemination is consistent to both groups and by hosting lunch-and-learn sessions on topics of particular interest or that are new and relevant to all. Our institution has a monthly open forum that has both an agenda of pertinent items like legislative updates or policy changes and then time for open discussion. It has been very useful for bringing issues to light for both faculty and staff.

Mulder: I find HR to be in the unique position of being able to bring all groups together. Some of our advisory groups, wellness initiatives, and community projects have been deliberately designed to bring different groups together and create more interaction between faculty and staff.

Lee: We should be ambassadors for egalitarianism and fair treatment, championing the staff and celebrating the faculty. It can be something as simple as, Does your car get towed after three tickets if you're staff but not for faculty? It's about living your values and following your value system.

The key is not devaluing the staff. You rarely hear a college or university leader talking about the great staff they have; they talk about their faculty. Some talk about the wonderful learning community, though. It needs to be a little more balanced.

Mulder: An institution's largest expenditure is for salaries and benefits. At Hope College, this accounts for approximately 58 percent of our total operating budget. Therefore, it makes good financial sense that HR plays a key role in decision making. I am part of the President's Council, which allows me the opportunity to coordinate HR issues with all areas of the institution. I believe this has helped us to make better decisions related to personnel issues.

Davis: Every organization depends on people to deliver services in some fashion. They are the binding thread, so to speak. It is imperative that human resources at colleges and universities be factored into discussions and decisions related to major initiatives and planning for them. At Central Wyoming, the chief human resources officer used to report to the VP of finance, but as the focus changed from having a transactional focus to having a strategic focus, reportability shifted to the CEO. With that came increased participation in cabinet meetings and being looked to for input in visionary decisions.

Lee: In some ways it's the responsibility of the HR leader to share with institutional leaders all the ways that HR can help. It's not always a pull for managers seeking resources; sometimes it's a push to say, "Did you know we can help you with this?" We want to be in the game. We have something to offer, and we're not being good stewards of our organizational resources if we're not doing all that we can and should do.

'If we're not proactive and we don't evaluate the trends on health care costs and employee retention and use a really good business sense about how we deal with those kinds of issues, ultimately it will affect, in a negative sense, student recruitment and retention.' -Jeff Strese, Southern Methodist University

We have an overall strategic plan that we created. We're working on advertising, recruiting, and selection. As a system we have entered into cooperative agreements with ad agencies to get volume discounts and give ourselves a more professional appearance in online media, having money and hopefully getting applicants from diverse communities. Individual community colleges are still placing their own ads, but they're going through the same ad agency.

Strese: Where we've tended to have the greatest success in strategic planning is when we have partnered with a division. For example, we're working with senior management and academic chairs at the School of Engineering and the School of Arts-somewhere between 15 and 20 leaders-taking them through a fairly robust leadership program.

In terms of the university's strategic plans, that's done at some of the highest levels of the institution. The most senior-level person in HR does not report to the president; ideally that would be more helpful from a strategic standpoint. I think that, with time, there will be more of an opportunity to help.

But if HR leadership is fairly reactionary and program-based only, you can make your argument all day long, but you won't have any proof of it. That's the journey this current HR department has been on during the last five or six years-trying to develop the credibility to show, in measurable ways, the impact that we've had with staff in individual schools.

Lee: There used to be reluctance in the nonprofit world to talk about variable compensation. You have to ask the question: Am I going to invest in my best performers, or am I going to gloss over the differences between my low, medium, and high performers? For higher ed in general, egalitarianism is a very high ideal. It's certainly a noble one. But capitalism is built upon supply and demand.

Davis: Our faculty compensation plan really has not changed in my nearly 20 years in higher ed, with the exception of some strongly tied vocational areas like nursing. In these areas, we have created a market adjustment from our base faculty pay scale. Compensation plans for staff, both exempt and nonexempt, have shifted toward broadband systems based on various factors like supervision, budget authority, decision-making level, etc., and include market analysis that is discipline specific, such as IT or marketing.

Mulder: We are becoming more proactive in completing market studies and in determining how we want to be positioned compared to our market. Given the discontinuance of some benefits in other industries (pension plans, post-retirement health benefits, etc.), two of the biggest draws to higher education are our stability in employment and our competitive benefits packages.

Strese: A lot of people seek out jobs at a place like SMU because they perceive it to be a little more stable, a little less volatile. They might be able to make 10 or 20 percent more in the corporate world, but they're willing to take a bit of a pay cut. We're trying to stay competitive in our benefits.

A long time ago, people would come and stay forever, like with the government. Now you're not seeing that as much. People in the last five years particularly might come for entry level and then move on-not in the academic area as much, but in the administrative and business services divisions. We ended up revising our new employee orientation program, making it more robust and making the hiring managers more involved in the assimilation process. That's a pretty good example of the contemporary approach to an HR system challenge.

'We have significant resources available to us on our campuses-food service, fitness centers, health clinics, etc. We need to take advantage of those resources and become national examples for wellness initiatives.' -Lori Mulder, Hope College

SMU stays fairly competitive with what we can offer salary-wise. We've got a terrific senior compensation specialist. Where I think we've gotten our most mileage is by partnering with an SMU division to come up with just-in-time data. We just updated salary ranges in our libraries so as they move forward in hiring librarians in the next fiscal year, they're going to be able to work within current strategic data for their specific niche. If we just did a survey for all administrative assistants universitywide, that may mean one thing for the law school and something entirely different for IT.

Davis: Yes. I think the focus in most colleges and universities is promoting our product-student learning and education. In many locations, the college or university is also one of the largest, if not the largest employer, and generally offers competitive wages and benefits plans. Higher education contributes significantly to the economics of our respective cities and counties.

Lee: Overall they do a good job, but many are starting to do a better job, or they're starting to take on Madison Avenue kinds of characteristics in their "branding." They're learning the value in that.

Mulder: I see institutions doing more to market themselves (such as hiring marketing directors, spending more on promotional materials, and engaging in more proactive efforts to identify and promote distinctive qualities). It is also important to consider the value your website can bring. The majority of applicants are coming from online advertising rather than print media. Local applicants search out our institutional website for open staff positions. Faculty applicants are applying based on online postings with professional journals and associations.

Strese: We've done some local research, and SMU is considered a preferred employer because we're small enough yet well-known. We recruit very actively and go to job fairs in the Dallas market area. You can't just do it through Monster. We've put energy and resources into creating a brand for ourselves.

I do a little bit of consulting on the side, and I'm an adjunct in the business school. These activities have helped me stay in touch with the business community. I've been able to generate and incubate ideas within the university and take them out into the corporate world, and vice versa. Within a university you can get fairly insulated; it can be like living in a bubble. To attract and retain outside talent, you have to have a brand. We're working very intimately with hiring managers within the university so that they begin to use the language associated with our brand and our online job posting tools as they shape their candidate pool.

Strese: It is one of the biggest challenges we will face in the next 10 years. You can't just keep raising tuition, because then your student consumer is going to say, "I'm going to go somewhere else." Fortunately, we have a strong student enrollment, but we're a business as well, and we've got to become more and more efficient with the resources we have. If we're not proactive and we don't evaluate the trends on health care costs and employee retention and use a really good business sense about how we deal with those kinds of issues, ultimately it will affect, in a negative sense, student recruitment and retention. We have to be very assertive in helping our institution give the absolute best service we can and in the most efficient way.

Mulder: We are continually reviewing our plans and have implemented cost sharing along with modifying plan designs. It is extremely important to communicate and be as honest as possible with your employees about this issue. We all desire excellent benefits, and only by working together with open communication can solutions be realized.

Lee: We're in a state where the system controls the benefit package. We know that health care costs are certainly important to everybody and overly important in the ability to attract and retain faculty and staff. The costs nationwide have risen so much that if you have a better benefit in that one item, it can make the employment decision for somebody.

Davis: Fortunately, our college is part of our state's insurance program, and our state has had the luxury of a surplus budget that has made significant investments in our state's employees, including at the colleges and university. If we didn't have that safety net, we would be looking at reducing programs and services, cutting benefits, or significantly increasing tuition and fees to keep up with the costs.

Davis: Wellness is the buzzword in many industries, including higher education. Our college offers staff wellness time-up to three hours per week to full-time employees to participate in a wellness or education activity. Many use that time to work out-say, to extend their lunch hour by an hour and work out at our on-campus fitness center or at one of the local clubs. Others use it to take classes offered by the school, including physical education classes. Some organizations have tied insurance premium discounts to participation in wellness programs, and I see that becoming more prevalent.

Mulder: We are a unique industry in that we have significant resources available to us on our campuses-food service, fitness centers, health clinics, etc. We need to take advantage of those resources and become national examples for wellness initiatives. At the very least, we can become examples for our students on how to live a healthy lifestyle. In the past two years, Hope College has begun an aggressive wellness initiative that has focused on physical activity, nutrition, and stress reduction. We are already seeing results among our employees, and our students have asked how they can participate.

<b>Strese:</b> The trends in the general workforce are telecommuting, job sharing-those types of things. In the university environment, from my experience you need to be at work at your desk, physically present, to offer that service. That is true in many cases, but in some cases it's not. We have to help our management throughout the university adapt and change and see that as long as you have guidelines and arrangements, you can offer these types of benefits. We help facilitate those arrangements. I can think of maybe a couple dozen situations a year where HR is approached about them.

In terms of work-life initiatives, we've been doing that for a good long time at SMU. We have had professional development opportunities that address balance and prioritization, for example. I don't know that we're cutting edge in work-life and wellness, but we probably have a more robust program than other universities, at least in our benchmark group.

'Many departments have shifted to having central files where office documents are stored so that with staffing turnover, documents are not lost. In addition, departments have set up e-mail accounts similarly so that day-to-day department e-mail is not tied to one person's name.' -Wendy Davis, Central Wyoming College

There are all kinds of ways to help us be healthy, happier, more proactive people. We're really trying to provide health and wellness resources to faculty and staff, not only for the philosophy of helping them be well but also because it's smart business.

Lee: We're thinking about work-life issues, but we're not really doing a lot right now. In the strategic plan created for HR a year and a half ago, work-life issues are the fifth on our five-item agenda. We know what needs to be done, but it's an issue of time, effort, and resources, and you can't do it all at once.

Davis: We strive to ensure that someone leaving the college with a long history is shadowed in some way by their replacement if possible or by another member of the department. We do exit interviews both in HR and with department managers to collect as much information as possible and make sure reference manuals and other department materials are up-to-date. We also ensure that all materials like computer files, e-mail, etc. are reviewed by supervisors and distributed appropriately so important items are not lost when a person's electronic files are destroyed.

Many departments have shifted to having central files where office documents are stored so that with staffing turnover, documents are not lost. In addition, departments have set up e-mail accounts similarly so that day-to-day department e-mail is not tied to one person's name. This also helps when someone has a name change by not creating confusion for external stakeholders.

Mulder: Succession planning is key. We have been examining those departments where multiple retirements will occur within the next five years. If there are internal candidates who can fill the position, we want to prepare them for the possible transition by offering training. However, not all positions are filled from within. New hires often bring fresh ideas and concepts that can greatly benefit an institution.

Strese: We don't have a formal succession plan for leaders retiring. A couple of new vice presidents have arrived in the last year, and a succession plan would have helped. My transition did not include a formal acknowledgment of me as successor.

We need certain checks and balances as an organization to create diverse candidate pools. Without good workforce diversity, it can be perceived as you just keep promoting the same people. It's a challenge I think many universities will grapple with in the next decade, as you have a generational changing of the guard.

Lee: People talk about succession planning more than they act on it. I think everybody's learning now how to do it and starting to make sense of it. I've done a lot of consulting on search committees. You'd be surprised how many organizations I work with that say they have no promotional policy. So a current employee competes with the outside people like a normal applicant. We have that same kind of thing, with variations. In the for-profit arena when you talk about succession planning, you know three years in advance. We're not in the corporate model where we transfer knowledge across our organization. We tend to be much more siloed and entrepreneurial. I've never heard of a school that said this is going to be our next vice president, provost, or president.

There should be a balance of cultivation of internal and external talent. At the end of the day that's all a college or university is--a repository of knowledge.