Unexpected Departure at Simmons

President quits after less than 2 years in office; board chair without academic background named as interim for 2-3 years.
April 25, 2008

Students and faculty members at Simmons College were stunned Thursday by the announcement that Susan Scrimshaw, president for less than two years, would be leaving at the end of the academic year.

Adding to the concerns of many was the announcement that the chair of the college's board, who does not have a Ph.D. or experience as an academic leader, will serve a term of two to three years as interim president. While it is not unheard of for trustees to step in as interim presidents for relatively short periods of time when a president leaves suddenly, a tenure of two to three years for such a trustee as an interim is highly unusual.

Adding further questions, according to several faculty members at the college: Simmons, founded as a women's college and still an institution with only women as undergraduates, has now had two female presidents and both left after two years, amid reported tensions with board members. And contributing still more concern -- the departure comes at a time that Simmons has searches going on for a new provost's position and for a new senior vice president's position.

The college's announcement tried to put a positive spin on the departure of Scrimshaw, saying that she was leaving to take a position in international public health, her area of expertise. While Scrimshaw did not respond to requests for an interview directly, the college released a reply from her in which she said that an opportunity that she wasn't at liberty to discuss had emerged and had led her to the "particularly difficult" decision to leave.

Faculty members, citing considerable uncertainty about what is going on, said that they viewed the press release as covering up conflicts between Scrimshaw and board leaders. Citing that uncertainty, as well as the idea that a non-academic was about to be in charge of the campus, professors would not speak with their names attached. But many said that they were shocked and trying to figure out what was really going on.

Professors said that they had mixed feelings about Scrimshaw, with some expressing great admiration and others saying it had been too early to judge. Several said that they sensed some ambiguity about the president's relationship with the board. Scrimshaw won praise for her vision for the college's potential and several professors said she had engaged the faculty in serious discussions about the future of Simmons in a way they appreciated. The announcement -- without faculty consultation -- that a non-academic would be in charge for a period of two to three years made it impossible, many professors said, to accept that this was just a case of Scrimshaw finding another opportunity.

"To what extent does the board understand the true nature of higher education?" asked one professor. "To have the chair of the Board of Trustees, with no Ph.D., appointed like this, what does this mean? How will she understand higher education? These are not the types of questions one likes to ponder."

Beth Maclin, a senior at Simmons and editor of The Simmons Voice, the student newspaper, said that Scrimshaw was popular with students. "People very much respected her. She was receptive to students. If you wanted to see her, she had office hours for students and she really listened," Maclin said.

The board chair who will now be interim president is Helen G. Drinan, who is leaving her position as senior vice president of Caritas Christi Health Care System to take on the Simmons presidency.

Stephen Jonas, vice chair of the board, said that it wasn't Drinan's idea to assume the presidency and that she only agreed to it after other trustees urged her to consider the possibility. Jonas said he was handling the announcement so that "no one perceives a conflict" in the board appointing its own chair to the interim position. Asked why the board was not going with a more traditional interim arrangement and starting a search for a permanent replacement, Jonas cited the ongoing search for a provost.

"Helen coming in is a plus," he said, because now a provost can be selected who might well be groomed to become president after the two or three years that Drinan is in office. While faculty members are under the impression that the provost search has been stalled, Jonas said that there are "good candidates" still under consideration and that he thinks the prospect of becoming president in a few years may attract other candidates.

As to Drinan's lack of a traditional background in academe, Jonas said that "we spent plenty of time discussing that and expect to get questions from faculty for sure." He said that the "unusual situation" led to a "sufficient combination of reasons to overcome" any concerns about Drinan's lack of academic experience.

Word on campus was that Scrimshaw had presented a strategic plan to the board and met with some opposition to it from some trustees. Jonas said that the board leaders, including Drinan, "supported and admired" Scrimshaw's agenda. He said it was incorrect to say that her plans had been rejected.

"We have had numerous discussions over numerous evolving drafts of the strategic plans," he said. "The board likes all of the elements in the strategic plan, but the financial planning -- at what pace, and at what priority and what the outcomes are -- has not been done. The board's responsible stewardship role is 'we love all of these ideas, but let's do the rest of the work on pace and squencing.' "

Added Jonas: "It's an academic institution, but at the end of the day, it's still a business and you have to be able to afford things."

Scrimshaw had been dean of the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago for 11 years when she moved to Simmons. She succeeded Daniel S. Cheever, who was in office for 11 years, which followed a two-year presidency for the first woman to lead the college, Jean A. Dowdall, who has since gone on to become a leading consultant on presidential searches.

Jonas said there was no reason to assume anything notable about the fact that a college had two women serve as presidents and they both left after two years. While some faculty members said that gender surely needed to be discussed, especially given the college's role in educating women, others said they weren't sure. One noted that even if gender wasn't an issue, there remained the question of why two of the last three presidents lasted only two years.

The board does have "a preference" for hiring a woman as the college's next president, Jonas said. He added that he believed that concerns about the situation for women leaders at the college would be lessened after professors and students get to interact with Drinan.

While professors are using words like "forced out" to describe Thursday's news, Jonas insisted that was incorrect, and said that it was the opportunity Scrimshaw has that led to the change. "We recognize that under normal circumstances [her tenure] would have been longer," he said.


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