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Robertson Scholars Program experiences changes in staff

After one year with a new executive director, two staff members have left the Robertson Scholars Program, causing students to question the vision for the program and the nature of its leadership.

Jeanne Kirschner, the program’s director of operations, and Abbey Greenberg-Onn, assistant director for recruiting and selection, have stepped down from their respective positions, according to an email to scholars March 6. In reaction to the changes, some scholars are considering how the program’s leadership reflects which students are admitted into the program and if this is indeed changing.

“When senior leadership changes occur in any capacity, broad personnel changes are the norm and not the exception,” said Woody Coley, executive director of the Robertson Scholars Program. “It wouldn’t be surprising to have some people who remain in the program and some who don’t.” Coley declined to comment about the most recent personnel changes.

Kirschner, who will be leaving the program after graduation in May, could not be reached for comment. Greenberg-Onn, who left the program one month ago, declined to comment. The reason for the administrators’ recent departure is unclear, but they may be related to other job opportunities, said Robertson Scholar Stefanie Schwemlein, a sophomore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“There are a lot of staff members moving on within Duke and UNC and also moving into administration positions elsewhere within the campuses,” Schwemlein said. “The one thing across the board that we have heard from staff members who have left or who are planning to leave is that it has nothing to do with the scholars themselves.”

In recent years, the program has seen a number of shifts in leadership. The program welcomed Coley, former managing partner at the real estate consulting firm Value² Partners, LLC., as executive director in April 2011. His predecessor, Alex Perwich, resigned in June 2010 after serving about four months in the position.

This left the program without a director for nearly a year during which Kirschner worked to find his replacement.

Before Perwich, the program was helmed by Tony Brown, professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy and now the director of the Hart Leadership Program. Speaking generally, Woody noted that the program’s main goals—recruiting and selecting new scholars, providing leadership programming during the academic year and focusing on summer opportunities—have remained constant in wake of shifts in staff.

The most significant impact of leadership shifts on students is moreover related to changes in the selection of individual scholars, Schwemlein said.

“Each class has a distinctly different flavor, which reflects the leadership at the time,” she said. “With the juniors and seniors, it’s kind of clear that they reflect the values that [former executive director Tony Brown held], like compassion and social justice.”

Junior Jeremy Knight, a UNC Robertson Scholar, said students consult staff members for various reasons and have noticed their departure but noted that his day-to-day experience with the program has not changed significantly.

“[The staff] really plays a secondary role in the advancement of our scholars,” Coley said. “[The scholars] bring the initiative.... They bring their intellect and make their decisions and in a small way, we try to accelerate their growth and amplify their natural abilities.” Julian Robertson, the founder and benefactor of the Robertson Scholars Program, and Dr. Aaron Stern, a member of the program’s board of directors, have invited scholar input to help solve the ambiguity surrounding the leadership transitions within the program, according to an email to scholars April 4.

Robertson Scholar Nari Ely, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, organized a forum Sunday for scholars to brainstorm and come to a consensus on what it means to be a Robertson Scholar.

“Nothing super concrete came out of the program, but it was designed to start the conversation. Based on what I understand, there were about four or five things that people agreed on as qualities the program focuses on that they value most,” said Duke Robertson Scholar Andrew Hanna, a sophomore. “These included passion and a willingness to deal with change and personal risks.” Sophomore Zack Zlatev, a UNC Robertson Scholar, said that because the Robertson Scholars Program—created in 2000 through a $24 million gift from Robertson and his wife Josie—is relatively new, administrators are still trying to solidify its vision.

“Figuring out a single vision for what the program wants to look like in 20 or 50 years could really go in a lot of different directions and is the biggest challenge for the future,” Zlatev said.


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