Jeff Strietzel, a PhD Candidate in the School of Education’s program in Higher Education Leadership Studies within the Department of Educational Leadership, received the Baylor University Outstanding Graduate Research Award for the social sciences. Strietzel’s dissertation research focuses on higher education leaders whose careers have been derailed at some point and how they recovered. That same week, Strietzel also placed second in the Baylor Graduate School’s “Three-Minute Thesis (3MT)” competition, presenting his dissertation research in 180 seconds.
“Some of life’s most valuable lessons are learned through failure,” Strietzel said. And that inspired him to study the experiences of high-level administrators in higher education to find out what it felt like to lose a job and what they learned. Strietzel interviewed 37 leaders, all of whom had “rebounded” and found employment again in higher education. The rebound was one of his criteria, because he was interested in how they found success again. He only interviewed people who had been presidents, provosts, or administrators who reported to them. All the respondents will be anonymous in his published dissertation, which was important for most — but not all — of the people he interviewed.
In order to find study participants, Strietzel said he sent 1,100 emails “to complete strangers.” He had found the names of derailed leaders through news sources or referrals from others. In addition, he sent emails to senior leadership at many institutions asking them to pass along his information. He also sent emails to professional organizations that distributed the information. He said he knew he would have to cast a very wide net to find people willing to dredge up the past and talk about their professional failures, even anonymously.
“It’s painful. That’s why this type of research hasn’t been done yet. But adversities can be our greatest learning opportunities,” he said. “In higher education, people are devoted to the students and invest a lot. As a consequence, we wrap up our identity in that. So, ‘Who am I without my job?’ That is a powerful question for all of us.”
The leaders Strietzel interviewed said that job derailment provided space for them to clarify who they were and why they wanted to continue to work in higher education.
Strietzel noticed common threads in the stories of his subjects. For example, Strietzel said a new president “cleaning house” by removing and replacing senior leaders was a situation several participants shared. “That is a trope that will not leave higher education,” he noted.
But Strietzel said he was also surprised at the diversity of the stories. And he found some strange coincidences. One of his subjects had actually fired another one, although they are now at different institutions and unaware of each other’s participation in the study. Two other subjects happened to be fired by the same person. Strietzel noted, “Higher education is a small field, but I was still surprised that some participants had crossed paths.”
Strietzel’s research raises some questions about job loss and identity. Although his interview pool was almost equally split by gender, he said that is not representative of higher education, where men hold more leadership positions. “I did not hear one male even allude to the idea of gender discrimination,” he said. “But several women felt gender played a role in their job loss.”
Strietzel said he would have liked to have had more historically marginalized persons. For example, only 16 percent of those he interviewed were persons of color. He said that the percentage is probably sadly reflective of the reality in university leadership, adding, “Future research should consider career derailment among historically underrepresented populations. That’s something I hope to do, post-dissertation.”
In receiving the Outstanding Graduate Research Award from the Baylor Graduate School, Strietzel is the second student in a row to receive it from the School of Education. Last semester’s social science recipient was Rachel Renbarger, who recently graduated with her PhD in Educational Psychology.
Strietzel earned his undergraduate degree at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and a master’s degree in higher education administration at Taylor University in Upland , Indiana. He has held several administrative roles in college student activities, residential life, student academic support, assessment, graduate student recruitment, campus tours, and enrollment services.
The Baylor PhD program includes a graduate assistantship in higher education administration. Strietzel, in a partnership between the Baylor SOE and Texas State Technical College (TSTC), is the inaugural graduate assistant in the office of the Chief Academic Officer of TSTC’s statewide system. He has worked in multiple roles in student life at Baylor, including in student recruitment in the Department of Educational Leadership within the SOE.
He has published research in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, a top journal in the field of student affairs, has presented many times at national conferences, and speaks on his research and related topics. He has taught courses in student success, leadership, and the culture and organization of higher education. Strietzel will be a part-time instructor at Baylor this fall and plans to graduate in December 2020.
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