Around 200 people have left Duke’s Office of Student Affairs since 2020 — a turnover rate that has left students feeling the impacts of staffing shortages, losses of institutional knowledge and uncertainty about next steps.
About 100 people have transferred to positions outside of Student Affairs and about 100 people have left the University entirely since 2020, according to Mary Pat McMahon, vice president and vice provost for student affairs. Those who left the University either retired or took other jobs.
Meanwhile, almost 50 new staff have been hired between July 2021 and Sept. 2022, McMahon said.
Student Affairs consists of identity and cultural centers, dining, the Career Center, DukeReach, Student Health, DuWell, Student Conduct, Counseling and Psychological Services, and Housing and Residence Life. It also includes human resources and event management staff.
In total, there are around 500 people working under this umbrella, including both unionized and non-unionized employees. Unionized staff are primarily in housing, dining and maintenance. Most departures, McMahon said, have been on the non-union side, which has about 280 employees.
The Chronicle was able to independently verify at least 62 departures since 2020, all of whom were non-union employees. Student positions and temporary positions such as internships or fellowships were not included in The Chronicle’s analysis.
Student Affairs isn’t the only area of the University to see turnover. In July, 110 alumni of the arts signed a letter calling on President Vincent Price and former Provost Sally Kornbluth to audit the departures of several Duke Arts and Duke Performances staff.
But departures and vacancies in these areas have directly affected students. Students have raised concerns about accessibility of counseling services and the impact of staffing shortages on dining and other services. Students of marginalized identities have been particularly impacted.
A recent departure in the Center for Multicultural Affairs temporarily limited access to the Cultural Engagement Fund, which gives money to identity groups for programming. In a March 2021 letter to administrators, Mobilizing Asian Students Together wrote that there was high turnover of CMA student coordinators due to workload and that student groups were not receiving adequate support.
The Native American and Indigenous Student Association said in November 2021 that “multiple allies” had left the University and that only the group’s advisor and another part-time employee were supporting the organization, neither of whom were Indigenous.
NAISA president Quinn Smith, a senior, told The Chronicle that the lack of employee support for the organization has “been a nightmare.”
Without dedicated staff, cultural event planning often fell on NAISA members, Smith said, and planning efforts were often complicated by the size of the group. Smith estimated that there are only about 20 Native students in each incoming class, and that a fraction of those students get involved in NAISA.
The challenges of planning these events have brought some NAISA members “to the brink of mental breakdown,” Smith said.
“The [student] who planned our gala had to take weeks off for her mental health,” he said, referring to the Nov. 5 Indigenous Arts Showcase and Gala.
At the Center for Muslim Life, turnover has negatively impacted students’ ability to connect with staff, according to senior Hana Hendi.
New staff members may not be as familiar with the University, whereas staff who have been at the University for more time “don’t need a preface to how Duke works or how students are affected by certain aspects of Duke life,” Hendi said. Additionally, staff members who have longstanding ties to the Durham community can foster connections between students and local cultural organizations.
“Because of the high turnover, it’s very difficult for [students] to get candid feedback [from staff] without having to have a whole introduction before finally getting to the problem,” Hendi said.
She noted that the “unexpected” departure of a CML advisor at the end of the 2021-2022 academic year posed a challenge because that person was no longer around to guide students through a leadership transition. The institutional knowledge the staff member had was only preserved through the hire of a recent alumnus, Hendi said.
Nationwide, there has been an increase in employees leaving higher education since the COVID-19 pandemic, with many citing work-life balance, safety and work culture among other reasons. A July survey of college employees found that over half were likely to leave their jobs in the next year.
However, Hendi thinks that blaming the “Great Resignation” for turnover at Duke is not sufficient.
“I still think that Duke is above the average, and there are ways for us to not excuse what’s happening on our campus as just a national phenomenon,” she said. “There are ways to ensure our campus is different.”
Higher education turnover in the Triangle
McMahon asserted that turnover in Student Affairs is lower than at other institutions.
“I’ve been watching the numbers, and the places that I’ve done comparisons with, our turnover rate is lower by a pretty significant degree,” she said, although she didn’t specify which institutions.
The “peak” of non-union departures was in 2021 according to McMahon, with there being “50 or 60” vacancies out of 280 non-union Student Affairs positions. The University of North Carolina system also saw a spike in resignations and transfers last year, with the trend continuing as recently as April 2022.
To find data that would be closer to Duke’s, The Chronicle looked at Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages data for positions at privately-owned establishments in the “Colleges, Universities and Professional Schools” industry in Durham County from January 2020 to June 2022. This was compared to QCEW data for state government-owned colleges and universities in Orange County, where UNC Chapel Hill is located, and in Wake County, where North Carolina State University is located.
Colleges typically have a decline in employment at the beginning of summer and an increase leading into the following fall semester, and the data reflects that. Orange and Wake County schools generally saw larger changes in the number of employees from month to month, while Durham saw less drastic changes.
For instance, Durham County colleges saw a 2.5% increase in employees between June and July 2021 and a 1.6% decrease between July and August 2021. Those were the largest percent changes.
In comparison, Orange County colleges had a 14% reduction in employees between July and August 2021 and a 10% increase between April and May 2022. Wake County colleges had a 21% reduction in employees between August and September 2020 and a 24% increase in employees between May and June 2021.
Overall, North Carolina has had a net 2.5% loss of college and university employees, privately-owned Durham colleges have had a net 5.7% loss, state government-owned Orange colleges have had a 13.8% gain and state government-owned Wake colleges have had a 11.1% gain.
Where Duke Student Affairs stands now
Currently, there are 30 vacancies in Student Affairs. From July 2021 to September 2022, almost 50 people were hired into the office.
As of Dec. 15, the CML, Jewish Life at Duke and the Women’s Center were considered fully staffed, and there were openings in the CMA and the Center for Sexual and Gender Diversity. The Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was also looking to fill three permanent student-facing roles as of that date. The Chronicle also identified openings in the Career Center, DuWell and student activities, among other areas.
Some roles, like CAPS counseling interns and residence coordinators, are designed to turn over more frequently, McMahon said. (Of the 62 departures The Chronicle identified, five were residence coordinators.) Other roles have shifted as people move on from Duke and new leaders take charge.
“A key piece of all of this is that we have had significant leadership change [in Student Affairs],” McMahon, who arrived at Duke in 2019, said. “There’s a certain amount of building a new team, and they’re going to have different ideas when there’s a vacancy.”
Smith said things seemed to be “moving in the right direction” for hiring under the leadership of McMahon and Shruti Desai, who was named assistant vice provost of student affairs for student engagement in 2021.
In a petition released in 2021, NAISA requested a full-time staff member to support the group among other demands. The organization also privately pushed Student Affairs officials for action, both McMahon and Smith said.
Smith said he was notified Oct. 31 that an offer would be extended for a Native student director in the following ten days — however, on Dec. 15, McMahon said an offer had not been extended yet. An opening for assistant director of Native and Indigenous programs, which would oversee NAISA and immigration justice group Define America, was posted to the University’s job board Dec. 15.
“The only movement on our demands has been through Student Affairs,” Smith said.
In response to a question about whether she felt Student Affairs is adequately meeting student needs at the moment, McMahon said the office is always looking for ways to gauge student feedback.
“That’s part of the function of Shruti, me, [Dean of Students] John Blackshear and folks on our team meeting regularly with students to get a sense of like, 'Where are we? Where are we well-covered, where do we need more?'” she explained. Those conversations impact how the office approaches budgeting, strategic planning and managing student fees.
Likewise, McMahon said working conditions for staff remain on her mind.
“What are the supports, what are the ways we recognize and value our teams? Because our teams are really incredible,” she said. “Student Affairs did not have any days off in the pandemic, there was no break for us. And that’s a national thing that’s also on the radar for me and for others who are paying attention to keeping terrific teams supported and valued.”
To Hendi, whether or not staff feel valued has a trickle-down effect on students.
“The second staff don’t feel like they belong, students are going to say, ‘Well, there must be something going on in the background,’” Hendi said. “It affects the way that the institution in general can be called home.”
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Nadia Bey, Trinity '23, was managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume and digital strategy director for Volume 118.