Late last week, I sat glued to my Twitter feed, mesmerized by the scroll of the breaking news out of Ann Arbor about the firing of Dr. Mark Schlissel by the University of Michigan board after an investigation into his relationship with a subordinate. It wasn’t the salacious content that captured my attention; instead, it was a déjà vu moment from nearly 22 years ago in my own career that had my head spinning.
My first job out of college was working in the Office of the President for my alma mater, the University of Colorado. I served as a special assistant, and my job description included the infamously vague “other duties as assigned” final bullet. It was this job responsibility that led to me serving as a staff member to the controversial consultant the president hired to build a marketing plan for the system. It was their personal interactions that led to the end of his presidency amid rumors of an inappropriate relationship.
The media coverage of their relationship played out over months (see page 30), and yet his decision to leave felt abrupt even though the calls for his resignation grew over the course of several months and hit a crescendo during a board meeting. The president asked me to hand out a series of sealed envelopes to the regents, chancellors, vice presidents and all his direct reports in attendance—except for me—as he left the building. Those envelopes held his resignation statement, and I was only made aware of their contents when a vice president pulled me aside and let me read his copy. Not only did the resignation catch me by surprise, but it told me that despite the fact I reported to the president, I had been forgotten as a professional and a person.
I was unable to process the experience in the moment and instead took months to assess how I felt and what I needed to do next for myself and my career. Below is what I learned, and I hope my experiences can be helpful to others dealing with fallout of crises at the presidential level.
You can love an institution, but it’s not able to love you back. My husband reminded me of this fact every morning for months as I waited for some recognition of my disappointment and betrayal. It felt ridiculous that I had trusted my boss and his vision for the institution. I allowed myself to think I was part of a winning team fighting the good fight.
What was missing from my husband’s advice was something I had to figure out for myself: even though an institution can’t love you, that doesn’t mean it can’t break your heart. And the key is that it may break your heart, but you can’t allow it to break your spirit. I chose to retain my optimism and belief in others even when I knew I wasn’t guaranteed to have those emotions returned.
You can’t take it personally. I felt betrayed by my mentor and colleague because I had believed in how they planned to transform the university, and all those plans—and our work—came to an end. Their decisions had nothing to do with me, but the repercussions of their actions cascaded to include the full staff of the Office of the President, and the emotions associated with the situation and the aftermath wore all of us down. Not surprisingly, all but one member of our staff had moved on within a year.
The work performed in the C-suite is tough and requires long hours of work—and the strain is exacerbated when unnecessary drama and emotion are added to the mix. My advice to the Michigan staff and others in similar situations is to consider your options and prioritize your future, which may include staying and building the office back stronger. For me, leaving was the best option. I don’t know that I would have left my position otherwise, and my next role set my career into motion.
And while you shouldn’t take it personally, it is personal for many, including the family of those involved and the people you work with. These situations are often more complex than can ever be reported in a newspaper, so tread lightly, thoughtfully and respectfully and be sure to check in on those who may be struggling with the news. For me, that check-in came from the then secretary to the board.
Hold your head up. Campuses love gossip, and the judgment will extend to those in the Office of the President who had nothing to do with the situation. That was me. Despite the news media’s unnamed sources who dished on the president’s personal relationship, I never saw anything, I never heard anything and I never said anything, because I never knew. Several people assumed I was naïve or stupid, given I worked for both individuals involved in the scandal, and I became a part of the gossip. The reality was I was trusting, and I was focused on my job and doing it well.
During the media coverage of the allegations against my president and his consultant, I decided—in true 2000 fashion—to follow television’s Ally McBeal’s lead and find a theme song to get me through. I chose “Hold Your Head Up” by Argent to remind myself that this situation didn’t involve or reflect on me, and I deserved to hold my head high. Playing it each morning on my way to work was the pep talk I needed to move beyond the chatter and refocus on my work.
Remember the world is round—not fair. My legal counsel colleague taught me that a few years later when the institution faced additional scandal. The adage is a great reminder that none of what happened had to be fair, and it was a waste of time to try to create fairness during scandal. Address your emotions and professional future, focus on your work, and the balance of fairness as it relates to you will recalibrate.
Don’t forget your duties. Despite the turmoil around you, get your job done, because your next opportunity may emerge from your focus. The same vice president who notified me of the president’s resignation later hired me as his chief of staff. He noted that he had been impressed with how I continued to represent the institution even while questioning my long-term fit.
Communicate with those who don’t have senior titles. I’ve never felt smaller than when I realized I was invisible to senior leaders on announcement day. For that reason, I strongly advocate that anyone who can credibly ask, “What does this mean for me?” deserves to be included in internal communications rollouts. I have lived the fear associated with a lack of information about my livelihood and therefore urge leaders to address directly the basic concerns and questions their teams hold.
Scandal associated with a university president has the potential to impact more than just those involved in an assumed relationship or in any situation in which there is even the appearance of impropriety. Check in on those you know who are directly impacted by significant leadership changes and offer them support. For those remaining in the wake of a scandal, it’s OK to prioritize yourself, your emotions and your career in the aftermath.