What Does a Chief of Staff Do in the Higher Education Industry?

Written by vChief

November 11, 2021

While we continue to debunk the myth that the chief of staff role is reserved solely for politics, we thought it would be helpful to explore the role of a chief of staff in specific industries. Today we’ll be talking about the chief of staff role in higher education. We were lucky enough to get some insight from one of our vChiefs, Jessica Rubie.

Please detail your experiences working as a chief of staff in higher education.

I worked at Tier One research universities for seven years, first at the University of Washington and then Texas A&M University. Before that, I worked in politics, private foundations, and family offices, supporting higher education initiatives.

What were your key responsibilities as a chief of staff in higher education?

I followed the president of the University of Washington to Texas A&M to lead his transition team. My job was to set my boss up for success in his new role. That meant doing advance work, leading strategic initiatives and high profile projects, building capacity in the executive leadership team and the office of the president staff, overseeing executive communications, and providing fundraising support.

How did these responsibilities and/or the work differ from other chief of staff roles you’ve taken on in different industries?

These days, the role of a university president is much like that of an elected official. There is a very clear timeline (usually a 5-year contract). You need to demonstrate significant accomplishments in a short amount of time, raise large sums of money, and skillfully navigate a very political environment.

Those goals are regularly at odds with how the rest of the institution functions. Shared governance, tenured faculty, hundreds of years of tradition, and complex state and federal regulation don’t make it easy to get things done quickly.

In every industry in which I have worked, I have always supported executives navigating change in high-pressure environments. It’s always hard work, but change at an institution of higher education is next-level hard. It felt like trying to turn a cargo ship on a dime.

Were there any unexpected surprises along the way?

How political the environment could be – and I say that as someone who worked in Congress.

What are your three biggest takeaways from your experience as a chief of staff in higher education?

  1. The culture and structure of higher education is very specific. You need to be creative to get stuff done but with a realistic perspective on the structure and culture of the institution.
  2. Accelerate into the curve. It’s hard to understate the importance of consensus in higher education. Starting slow and building support around a project will help you move quickly later.
  3. Remember the why. Find ways to interact with students regularly. It puts all of the day-to-day administrative frustration into perspective.

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