The postsecondary education team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is losing more than its leader.
Hilary Pennington,  director of education, postsecondary success, and special initiatives in the foundation's United States program since 2007, told grantees in an e-mail last month that she would leave her position  by spring 2012 to "get closer to work on the ground." Pennington, who has led the foundation's gradually intensifying involvement in issues of college completion, productivity and technological innovation, said in announcing her departure that she was optimistic that the foundation's work would continue because "I am so confident about the strength of the strategy, the [postsecondary success] team, and our grantees and other partners."
But it looks as if some key members of Pennington's team are preceding her out the door. Tom Dawson, a senior policy officer at Gates who has been in the thick of much of its discussion and grant making around higher education policy, left quietly this summer and is now working at Laureate Higher Education Group, which owns Walden University and a network of for-profit colleges  around the world. Dawson technically worked on Gates's policy team rather than as part of its postsecondary success program, but he worked closely with Pennington.
And now Pennington's deputy since early 2010, Mark David Milliron,  is planning to leave Gates, as well. Milliron, a former head of the League for Innovation in the Community College whose high-impact presentations  have made him a frequent speaker about the future of higher education, did not return an e-mail message seeking comment, but a Gates spokesman confirmed that he is leaving. "We always envisioned that Mark would only be with us a fixed period of time, and he will have fulfilled that" upon his departure, said Chris Williams, press secretary at Gates.
The timing of the high-level departures prompted speculation among some recipients of Gates grants and others in the higher education policy world that the foundation might be reconsidering its focus on postsecondary education. While the foundation has poured comparatively huge sums of money into college completion and other issues, suspicion remains that its interest in higher education may flag. (While that might please critics who complain  that the foundation is an 800-lb. gorilla that is pushing an ill-advised emphasis on outcomes and productivity, a lot of colleges and higher ed organizations would bemoan Gates's withdrawal from the scene as a force for change -- and not just because of the loss of the group's financial support.)
They have nothing to fear, said Williams, the Gates spokesman. He described the departures of Pennington, Milliron and Dawson as part of an inevitable cycle in which smart and talented experts in various fields come to Gates to "work on tough issues," and "just like in other high-performing organizations, they work very hard, often for a period of time, then move on to something else, often going back into the field," said Williams. "We expect that, and that cycle is actually beneficial to us, to our grantees, and to the places these folks go on to work for."
Pennington's departure after nearly five years fits that pattern; Milliron was always expected to be a short-timer, and Dawson "got himself a great opportunity and decided to move to that," Williams said.
Most of the nearly 25-member postsecondary team at Gates remains intact, he said, with Josh Jarrett, another senior member of the group, moving into a deputy director role. "The team is in very good shape, and from our perspective, the [higher education] strategy's in good shape. It is designed to be focused on data, research, results, expected outcomes, and it's not tied to any one person or person's vision."
He added: "Because of our size, we tend to be watched very closely. In any field where we are grant making, people look for signs that indicate one thing or another. Often there's very little behind those signs other than people are coming or going."
So far, at least, some major grantees seem persuaded. "The Gates Foundation has made an extraordinary commitment to postsecondary education in the U.S., and we don’t see that changing," said Joan Mitchell, director of public relations at Western Governors University, which has received millions from Gates to bolster its efforts to expand its brand of competency-based online education  to several states. "They will be able to attract great leaders to continue the work started by Hilary and her team, and we look forward to continuing our work with them."