On Feb. 15, the University of Minnesota announced it had hired Lynda Welage as its new College of Pharmacy dean.
Less than two weeks later, Barnes-Jewish College in St. Louis named Nancy Ridenour its next president and the dean of Goldfarb School of Nursing.
And in May, Arizona State University announced it had appointed Deborah Helitzer to lead its College of Health Solutions.
Each will leave the University of New Mexico to take her new job, marking the near-simultaneous departure of three of four deans inside UNM’s Health Sciences Center.
Health Sciences Chancellor and School of Medicine dean Paul Roth — the lone HSC dean staying put — said the exodus is unlike any he has seen.
“It is very unusual; for as long as I’ve been here, this is the first time we’ve had all of this happening at the same time,” said Roth, who first came to UNM in the late 1970s as a medical resident.
“I’ve done exit interviews with them and with others that are leaving, and the reasons (are) just like everything else in life — it’s not a single thing. We kind of categorize when people leave; is it that they’re being pushed out of the institution? Or are they being pulled places? And I think it would be very easy to say that in all of these cases, it’s a combination of both.”
Welage, Ridenour and Helitzer each described their move as a great career opportunity. When contacted by the Journal, none cited any specific issues at UNM that compelled them to leave.
“In a nutshell, I was recruited to ASU and offered a job of a lifetime, for which my work at UNM had prepared me very well,” Helitzer told the Journal via email. “There isn’t much more to it than that.”
She noted that money had “absolutely” nothing to do with her decision.
Welage said Minnesota has a highly ranked pharmacy school and is closer to her family. Ridenour said her new job is a higher-level position with more responsibility. It comes with a 40-percent salary bump, too.
“The market for health care professionals is very hot,” Ridenour said in an email. “We have multiple opportunities.”
Roth said it’s satisfying to see all advance professionally, and that UNM has identified capable interim deans to limit any possible disruptions. He aims to hire a new nursing and pharmacy dean before the 2018-19 academic year, though will likely hold off on a population health leader.
But Roth called the rash of losses “painful” and said it speaks to larger issues facing UNM and New Mexico.
The state has slashed higher education funding three times in the last two years.
Though it varies by position, Roth says the average HSC faculty pay level hovers close to the national 25th percentile. HSC will attempt to raise the average this year, but is facing a tight budget.
UNM’s state appropriation has fallen by $27 million, or more than 8 percent, in the last two years.
While New Mexico continues to struggle, Roth said other institutions are growing their programs. HSC’s overall faculty attrition has not spiked this year, Roth said, but it is hard to keep good people. While no other high-level administrators are leaving, he said some other executive-level HSC staff have said they are looking at other jobs.
“It’s very hard for an academic or really any kind of executive leader to be in an environment that is so restricted in resources — particularly in the state of New Mexico where the need is so great but the ability to respond effectively to those needs (is) so much less than other states,” he said. “That kind of climate is rather oppressive and serves as at least the impetus for people just looking. And when you open that door and begin looking at other places, even for these kinds of reasons, you begin realizing ‘Well, gee whiz, the grass really is greener on the other side.’ ”
UNM has lost several high-ranking administrators on the main campus too, though the reasons seem to vary.
Former president Bob Frank stepped down in December, five months ahead of his contract’s end date, after a dispute with UNM regents. Paul Krebs, vice president of athletics, retired at the end of June.
The provost’s office — headed temporarily by Craig White while permanent provost Chaouki Abdallah serves as UNM’s interim president — is facing multiple departures.
Carol Parker, senior vice provost for academic affairs, is heading to a new job at University of Texas at El Paso. Greg Heileman, vice provost of teaching and learning, will technically retire from UNM for a position at University of Kentucky.
Heileman said he was not actively pursuing an exit strategy, and even hopes to keep professor emeritus status at UNM. But after 27 years there, he did start listening more closely to the swirling recruiters and their steady stream of job leads.
“I reached a point where I could retire and (was) looking selectively at opportunities as they became available. This one seemed like a good one, so I took it,” he said, adding that he will have an expanded role at Kentucky but one that aligns with his experience at UNM.
Other academic affairs leaders moving to other institutions include Josephine “Jozi” De Leon, vice president for equality and inclusion; and Monica Orozco Obando, vice provost for extended learning, according to a UNM spokeswoman.
The provost’s office weathered a similar wave about five years ago, Abdallah said, noting that such scenarios are often cyclical.
How, or if, UNM replaces them remains somewhat unknown given the budget strain. The school may somehow restructure the provost’s office, possibly merging positions, Abdallah said.
Offering enough pay to recruit outside candidates could prove challenging, but Abdallah suggested that UNM has some excellent candidates already on campus. And he said the school has established systems to promote student success that can survive at least a little disruption.
“I don’t want to say it doesn’t have an impact (to lose administrators),” he said. “But I’m not worried ‘Oh, my God, what are we going to do with this? That’s the only person who could do it.’ ”
But both Roth and Abdallah say the administrative flight is in some ways a positive sign. Abdallah called it a “badge of honor” that other schools source their talent from UNM.
“I don’t like to lose good people, but at the same time I’d rather have people others want than people who can’t get a job,” he said.