On November 5, 2018, Jon Fitzpatrick, newly hired vice president of admissions and marketing, was fired. In protest to his termination, Laura Scott Madden (‘18) and Callie Nelson (‘16) resigned their posts as admissions counselors (ACs), thus cutting the AC staff by a third.
Fitzpatrick’s dismissal and its fallout is just the latest chapter in what many ACs describe as a two-year saga of departmental instability. In the past two years alone, the admissions staff has fluctuated considerably. However, the demand on the admissions office for increasing enrollment numbers has remained the same.
ACs say they have struggled without leadership and are concerned that this high turnover rate harms the entire college––potentially hindering enrollment efforts. Covenant’s enrollment directly determines the financial well-being of the college, which impacts tuition, the ability to keep and hire professors, and the development of new academic programs, among other things.
A History of Instability
The abrupt shift caused by Jon Fitzpatrick’s firing and Laura Scott Madden and Callie Nelson’s resignations is just one example of the admissions office’s high turnover rate.
Of the current AC staff, Erik Vitolins has been employed the longest, for three and a half years. According to the Admissions Departmental Organizational Chart, none of the seven ACs who were working four years ago are still employed in admissions. Vitolins said that the average length of employment for an AC at Covenant is about a year and a half.
Former Director Scott Schindler and Assistant Director Claire Hirte (‘11) both resigned in the summer of 2017. Since the resignations, the admissions office has been without a director and instead has had a number of short-term, interim assistant directors.
Current AC Ian Webb (’17) said, “It is hard to have such a good experience [as a student] and have Covenant very directly let you down in the way that [admissions counselors] have been working without a boss for a year and a half.”
Vitolins said that frequent leadership transition within the office especially over the past few years has made it harder for him to do his job well.
“We felt the lack of leadership there in that first year [of being without a director],” Vitolins said. “But I think that it’s really in cycle two without a director that we’ve been feeling the hit of not having a lot of good strategic guidance in the office.”
Pres. Halvorson agreed that this is a problem. He said, “Providing good support systems for counselors is a really important thing. Obviously, we could use some stability in that office, in terms of management.”
Addressing the high stress and apparent lack of resources in the admissions office, Halvorson said, “Expectations for admissions staff are consistent with what they have been in recent years, and resources in admissions are what they have been in recent years.” He further clarified, “The resources that are the same are the budgetary resources. Obviously, we were without a director last year, so that would be a human resource deficit (though one we sought to fill with outside consulting).”
Because of being understaffed, Nelson said she had fewer opportunities to develop relationships with prospective students than before, which she argued is a vital part of what makes Covenant competitive with other schools.
“I’ve felt a drift from the relational side of admissions to a need for sheer volume,” Nelson said.
Many ACs felt like their appeal for stability was finally being addressed when Halvorson hired Fitzpatrick as vice president of admissions and marketing in the summer of 2018.
Hiring and Firing Jon Fitzpatrick
Jon Fitzpatrick was hired in June of 2018 as vice president of admissions and marketing (also overseeing financial aid). Fitzpatrick originally applied to be the new professor of marketing but was not offered the job. Pres. Halvorson contacted Fitzpatrick and encouraged him to apply for the vacant position of VP of admissions and marketing. Halvorson, Fitzpatrick, and the hiring committee all knew that Fitzpatrick lacked some of the experience that would ordinarily be expected from a VP candidate who would oversee three departments.
“I knew there were elements of the job that I was not qualified for,” said Fitzpatrick, “and we all knew that throughout the whole interview process. I hadn't had admissions, financial aid, or higher ed. experience, but my experience in marketing and leading teams made it a great fit.”
The admissions staff was weary because of the lack of leadership and high expectations over the previous years. However, Fitzpatrick’s installment as VP raised morale considerably, ACs said.
Several ACs noted Fitzpatrick’s hard work during his first few months, including the development of outreach strategies and communication, as well as more fully uniting the financial aid, marketing, and admissions offices. Webb called Fitzpatrick the best boss he had ever worked for, noting Fitzpatrick’s ability to shepherd his team and learn from those who had been in the office for longer than he.
“The bottom line is Jon wasn't given nearly enough time to thrive here,” said Webb. “He wasn't given enough support staff to do the job satisfactorily.”
According to Madden and Fitzpatrick, Halvorson and Fitzpatrick agreed on priorities through January 2019, which focused on building a fully staffed and healthy team, getting Fitzpatrick more up to speed, and planning for the 2019 year. The focus was not intended to be on immediately raising enrollment numbers. After a period of focusing on the team dynamics, they would revisit plans to increase enrollment.
One task Halvorson stressed to Fitzpatrick was to hire someone for the still-vacant position of director of admissions.
“We thought it would be smart to hire a VP and allow him to choose a director,” said Halvorson.
As a part of his plan to unify the marketing and admissions offices, Fitzpatrick altered the job description of director of admissions to combine the marketing director and the admissions director into one role. According to Fitzpatrick, Halvorson was aware of the alteration as Fitzpatrick began his search for a candidate.
Fitzpatrick and Madden said that Fitzpatrick had gone through the entire process of hiring a director and on the same day Fitzpatrick planned to offer the job to the candidate, Halvorson changed the job description to its original requirements. Because of this alteration, Fitzpatrick’s candidate was no longer eligible and did not get the job.
Four months into his new position, Fitzpatrick was asked to give an update on enrollment numbers to the Board of Trustees.
“The board was focusing on enrolment,” Fitzpatrick said. “It didn’t go well for me because in the months leading up to it I hadn’t figured everything out yet, and I don’t think there were expectations that I would have had it all figured out by then.”
He also noted the detriment that the lack of a director and assistant director of admissions had on his ability to perform. “Not having those positions hindered so many things,” he said later.
On Nov. 6th, Halvorson notified the admissions staff that he had fired Fitzpatrick after less than five months of his installment.
Many admissions staff said they were confused and shocked by Halvorson’s decision and wished they had been given more of an explanation. “The staff was demoralized,” said one admissions employee who asked not to be named.
In response to many in the admissions office who reported feeling blindsided and even betrayed, Halvorson stated, “Jon is a wonderful human being, so it is not surprising that the folks who worked with him would be sad to not be working with him.” However, Halvorson said that his decision was based on what he believed was best for the college. Because of routine HR restrictions, Halvorson could not give a detailed explanation for Fitzpatrick’s termination.
The effect that the transition will have on enrollment numbers has been a topic of discussion. Callie Nelson said, “The students who complete the early action application end up being over 60% of our class. And Jon was fired a week and a half before that deadline.”
Renee Timmerman, former director of HR, said, “The work of admissions is something that is of highest priority to the president, the Cabinet, and the Board. Bringing the next generation of students to Covenant College is critical and our ‘top of the agenda’ challenge.” She continued, “We are not perfect and will, therefore, at times, make decisions that in hindsight we would change, but know that every decision we take is done for the sake of the mission of Covenant College and for the ultimate furtherance of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ.”
Timmerman also noted that HR “...lament[s] how those changes have been felt in the work environment and in enrollment.”
In protest to Halvorson’s decision to fire Jon Fitzpatrick, admissions counselors Laura Scott Madden and Callie Nelson resigned.
Though Fitzpatrick’s dismissal may have been the last straw for the two departing ACs, other factors contributed to their resignations. Some ACs said that over the past year and a half the admissions office has had a high turnover rate and has witnessed a pattern of leaders leaving on bad terms. In September of 2018, less than three months before Fitzpatrick’s dismissal, four ACs (including Madden and Nelson) brought a formal complaint to HR.
The involved ACs complained about mismanagement, lack of structure, and unresolved conflict between some employees and former leadership in the admissions office. HR offered the ACs a meeting with either the cabinet or with Halvorson to discuss the complaints, but no other apparent action was taken. Some ACs, based on past interactions with Halvorson, felt he would not be the best person to advocate for them and so requested a meeting with the cabinet.
Halvorson heard about the ACs’ request to meet with the cabinet and insisted on meeting with the ACs first, according to Madden. The ACs agreed to talk with Halvorson.
“It was a really good meeting,” said Madden, “we felt encouraged. But then nothing changed for a month, and then he fired Jon.”
Upon her resignation, Madden filed an official grievance letter with HR and sent copies to members of the administration and staff that were involved or in some way previously aware of the situation.
In her letter, she said, “This firing seems like retaliation for [Fitzpatrick’s] advocacy and trying to cover up the embarrassment of low numbers that are due to years of mismanagement: not Jon’s five months in office.”
Madden went on to write, “I believe that Derek’s decision to fire Jon was a corrupt decision based on the fear of losing his own job.”
Though Halvorson, due to HR restrictions, could not speak directly to the reasoning behind Fitzpatrick’s termination, he recognized the ACs’ dismay and defended his actions: “These sorts of decisions involve a lot of thought and counsel from others and a lot of prayer.” He continued, “It is my decision, ultimately, but I don’t make these sorts of decisions capriciously.”
Madden and Nelson had tendered their resignations, but HR did not contact either AC to set up an exit interview. Both Madden and Nelson had to request one.
In meetings with Renee Timmerman and Brad Voyles, vice president for Student Development and Dean of Students, both ACs voiced their concerns for the future of the admissions office and their frustration over Fitzpatrick’s termination. Voyles and Timmerman listened to the ACs’ concerns and requested that Madden stop sending her grievance letter to members of the college.
In an email exchange between Voyles and Madden, he told Madden that if she continued to forward the grievance, she would be asked to step down from her post, before her two week notice was complete. Madden resigned the next day.
Nelson responded to her and Madden’s treatment, “If you don’t want employees to speak truth boldly and who aren’t afraid to question authority, then you need to stop hiring Covenant alums.”
“Any leadership transition is difficult, and the folks who are here responded really well,” said Halvorson. “I am thankful for the resilience and the tenacity of the folks in the admissions office.”
Over the past few months, the admissions office has been scrambling to restore calm. Brad Voyles stepped in to temporarily fill the vacant leadership role that Jon Fitzpatrick left in admissions.
Voyles described how he has worked to find new members of the admissions staff. He said that he has re-hired alum and former Assistant Director Claire Hirte to serve as the new associate director, as well as bringing in two new ACs, Hannah Tippens (’18) and Anne Fuller (’18), and two former ACs, Tim Mahla (’07) and David Gambrell (’06), who have come back part time.
The admissions office now has eight ACs (including two part-time) and one associate director and is exploring candidates for a new director.
Ian Webb, a current AC, said that Voyles has risen to the challenge. “The way he's jumped into the admissions office for damage control has been incredible. Not only is he still fulfilling his responsibilities as the dean of students; he's gone full steam ahead in helping lead our office in so many practical ways.”
Others have a more pessimistic view of long term solutions. “Based on my experience, I see the board and the administration applying even more pressure on the admissions staff in the future,” Callie Nelson said. “I left because I don’t have the hope that there is a solution that can be made.”
With four new ACs and an associate director, the admissions office is currently working hard to create a healthy team and meet enrollment expectations for the next academic year.
In an email update, current associate director Claire Hirte said, “In the two months since rejoining the Admissions Department in December, I have been impressed and humbled by the incredible effort demonstrated by the current Admissions staff.” She continued, “In terms of moving forward, I am hopeful. … We reached a waitlist for attendance for the first [scholarship] weekend and were filled to capacity. We are thankful for the ways that this entire community has rallied around our efforts.”