Elon University said goodbye to four senior staff members in the last year, all of whom have become presidents at other universities. 

The most recent to announce their departure is Jeff Stein, vice president of strategic initiatives, who will be leaving after serving Elon University for 21 years. Stein will become the president of Mary Baldwin University beginning in July, after announcing his departure April 14. 

Senior staff members leaving and beginning other roles isn’t new to the university. This trend started when former Dean of the School of Health Sciences Rebecca Neiduski announced her departure March 21, 2022, after starting her role at Elon five years earlier to become president of Wartburg College.

Former Dean of the School of Communications Rochelle Ford, who worked at Elon since 2018, followed May 24, 2022, and announced she was becoming president of Dillard University. Former Provost Aswani Volety announced his departure May 26, 2022, to become the chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Turnover in higher education is not just an Elon issue, though. The University of North Carolina System had a 75% higher turnover rate in summer 2021 than the four years prior, partly due to COVID-19, according to Ithaka S+R, a research organization specializing in higher education. 

“There's more turnover, but this is sort of a natural aspect of Elon’s community that people are either moving up, or they're taking big jobs elsewhere and it speaks to the leadership that is provided,” Stein said.

In 2017, a study published by Business and Economics Horizons found that private higher education institutions have an average turnover of 18%. Elon’s turnover rate for senior staff in the 2022-23 year is 22.2%.

Neiduski said with the rate of turnover in university presidents in the U.S. in recent years, the amount of recruitment makes sense. 

“It's a hard job. It's a difficult market in higher education right now from an admissions perspective,” Neiduski said. “A lot of colleges and universities are looking for people who might be willing to try to consider the job.”

Erin Martin | Elon News Network

Chart of Elon University senior staff members from 2003 to 2023. Gray denotes a vacant/ nonexistent positions, asterisks denote positions combining or changing titles over time. Click image to enlarge.

Senior staff are a role head of a department or division and typically report directly to the president. Presidents head the entire university and oversee long-term plans. 

Volety joined Elon University in 2019 as provost after Steven House left in 2018. Volety said the jump from senior staff at Elon to a president at another university makes sense, as it’s typically the next step in a senior staff member’s career. 

“When you look at the duration of these and other senior staff, it's not uncommon for them to look at other opportunities,” Volety said. “For example, when you look at Jeff Stein, who has been at Elon for a long time, it has been a vice president and that's a logical next step.”

Neiduski also acknowledged how the work being done at Elon is being looked at by other universities. 

“You always run the risk when you hire great people to have them continuing their career.” Neiduski said. “The experiences and opportunities that you are privileged to be a part of at Elon really helped you to prepare yourself for your next steps in your career.”

Vice President for student life Jon Dooley, who has worked at Elon for almost a decade, said the rate of faculty being recruited is a testament to the university’s work. 

“It certainly speaks to the quality of the leadership we have at the institution,” Dooley said. “We know that there are lots of institutions that are looking at the work that's happening here at Elon and so it's no surprise that they would want to invite senior leaders at the university to be a part of their university.”

According to the Work Institute's 2022 Retention Report, losing an employee voluntarily costs approximately 33% of their base pay, which includes finding and training a replacement and the loss of productivity of other employees. In 2021, the cost of turnover on all employers in the U.S. exceeded $700 billion — more than double 2009.

Despite many of her colleagues leaving, or have left, Jana Lynn Patterson, dean of students, has worked at Elon for 37 years and said she is proud of them and their promotions. 

“They have the opportunity to grow and thrive, and then they become highly marketable as senior leaders,” Patterson said. “I'm proud of that. I'm sad to see these are my longtime colleagues, … but it is a great testament to our community's ability to help talented professionals grow and thrive to their fullest potential.”

In an email to Elon News Network from Patrick Noltemeyer, chief of staff, and Kelli Shuman, chief human resources officer, Noltemeyer and Shuman said though staff are being recruited due to Elon’s reputation, it is also attracting strong faculty. 

“Elon has consistently demonstrated its role in higher education as a community that develops leaders through a deliberate process of continuously and strategically envisioning a stronger university model, and we expect that this reputation will enable us to continue to attract and retain the best administrators, faculty and staff,” Noltemeyer and Shuman wrote.

Twenty years ago, there were seven positions on senior staff. Now, there are 25 senior staff members including deans, according to the university’s administration website, a testament to how the university has grown. 

Vice President for university advancement Jim Piatt will take some of Stein’s responsibilities — including managing the Student Professional Development Center and Office of Cultural and Special Program, among others — and become senior vice president for university advancement and external affairs, university President Connie Book announced April 25.

“Retention of all employees is a top priority for Elon, which is why we continually seek to examine, enhance and strengthen our salary and benefits structure to ensure that we are attracting and retaining exceptional employees at all levels of the organization,” Noltemeyer and Shuman wrote.

Stein and the other senior staff who have left are looking to tackle greater challenges and larger opportunities. 

“We have always prepared our faculty and staff and students to take on greater challenges, so you are seeing a little bit more in a concentrated period, probably because there's more openings out there at higher levels,” Stein said.