Late Career Transition, with Gary Swegan of Youngstown State University

Swegan_GaryAfter having spent 24 years at one institution (which also happened to be my alma mater), I have recently transitioned to a new institution as Chief Enrollment Officer (Associate Vice President for Enrollment Planning and Management). I am using this platform to provide some of my observations about transitions, and the assumption of leadership in a new place with new staff. In particular as it may apply to those, like me, who have spent considerable time at their institutions before accepting a new position elsewhere.

For anyone who has been at an institution for many years, we can all recount stories of administrators transitioning into, and out of, our institutions many times over. We recall those transitions that were a success, as the new administrator seemed to strike the right balance between respect for the existing culture, while also mobilizing staff toward some type of change. Conversely, we can all think of times when new “leaders” entered our midst like a bull in a china shop, with demonstrable disdain for whatever was currently in place, and a clear assumption that anything currently happening at the institution was without value.

As I moved to my new institution, I sought to be an example of the former, and not the latter, of the two examples above. I clearly stated in my interview that I recognized that this institution was not “created” on the day that I began my tenure. It had been in existence for over 100 years, would be in existence well after I was gone, and I recognized that much good work was being done here. Judging from the non-verbal feedback that I received from that statement, I was off to a good start.

I have always led from the mantra that “you cannot be an effective leader if nobody is choosing to follow.” Those with positional authority can too easily believe that staff acquiescence to their direction is akin to “following.” However, following because you are compelled to do so is not the same as “buying in.” My goal has been to establish my leadership at my new institution in a way that staff will wish to follow, and that quickly “my” goals will become “our” goals.

During my first six weeks I met with over 120 individuals at my new institution. My belief has been that I need to quickly learn the culture and “pulse” of the university, and this was certainly the best way to do so. While I have been careful not to draw conclusions based on snippets of information that each person would share, a fairly clear and consistent picture began to emerge rather quickly.

As I enter my third month on the job, I begin to transition toward the implementation of a plan of action and team building around the enrollment functions. How will those who have expressed great willingness to be a part of whatever change is on the horizon react when that change impacts them negatively? Will those who wish to assist in these efforts but are not invited to play major roles resist being helpful at all? Who are the campus thought leaders that I need to make sure are included? Will campus leadership be patient in the face of significant local media attention about a recent precipitous drop in enrollment that I have been brought in to address?

The answers to these questions no doubt materialize in the coming weeks and months, but regardless of how they are answered, I leave you with a few thoughts about this life changing transition. It has been great fun taking on a new set of challenges with new people in a new place. Putting the puzzle pieces together and using the skills and knowledge that I have amassed in over 25 years in enrollment management has been very gratifying. So, if you have the sense that your time might be up on your current campus, I would encourage you to take the leap and make a change. For me it has been very invigorating and satisfying!


  1. Eric Fulcomer says:

    Greg – Thanks for sharing your experience. As someone who recently transitioned after 19 years at an institution, I can certainly relate. I resonate with your quote: “the new administrator seemed to strike the right balance between respect for the existing culture, while also mobilizing staff toward some type of change.” Best wishes as you continue your journey.

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