By SUSAN JONES
David DeJong, who has worn many hats during his 30 years at Pitt, will now be taking on his biggest role — vice chancellor of Human Resources.
DeJong, who most recently was executive vice provost, was named interim vice chancellor of Human Resources on July 15 after Cheryl Johnson announced her resignation on July 12. Today, Chancellor Patrick Gallagher named DeJong to the job permanently.
At a July 17 Staff Council meeting, DeJong said the move to HR came as a surprise to him. “A week ago today, this was not on my radar,” he said.
In an interview today, DeJong said, “I’m excited to be here. I wasn’t planning on it, but, you know, life comes at you fast. And to me, this is just another challenge and another way to support the University in ways that I hadn’t considered before.”
He’s spent the past two months doing “pop-up planning” with different units on campus to develop a strategic plan and mission statement.
During his nine years in the provost’s office, DeJong said he served as a liaison with human resources and was the final person to sign off on staff actions in the provost’s area, such as salary exceptions and salary pool issues. These roles, which included helping guide the provost’s office through 2012’s voluntary early retirement offer for staff, have helped him prepare to manage the Office of Human Resources and its 60 core employees, he said.
In meeting with his staff, he’s learned, “just how amazing the people are, what a great team we have, how dedicated they are, how committed they are to the University. It’s been really humbling.”
When he asked the HR staff where it saw opportunities for improvement, their answers aligned almost exactly with the challenges that he’d been hearing about from other people at the University.
Fresh eyes on HR
DeJong told Staff Council this week that he wants to rethink “the organization of HR and make it more impactful in what it does.”
In an interview, he said that under Cheryl Johnson several large strategic projects, such as the Pitt Worx transition, were started and were staff by people from various areas of HR.
“What happened was that our core functionality was compromised because there were no resources that came in to replace the work that those people were doing,” he said. “And almost across all of those major projects, different sorts of challenges popped up that have either required that we put them on the back burner, or that the timelines for completion were extended, as just has been the case for the Oracle Cloud project.”
He wants to prioritize those strategic projects — which also include the job classification and compensation project once dubbed Total Rewards — and bring them to completion. The Oracle Cloud project is getting back on track and is expected to be completed in January 2021.
A big part of being able to work on HR’s core tasks and the strategic projects will be “to leverage our university partners.” This includes Staff Council, new Chief Information Officer Mark Henderson, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and General Counsel.
More specifically, he wants to empower directors of administration in the University’s various units, along with the more than 150 HR liaisons at Pitt, to deal with frequently asked human resources questions, instead of sending employees to the HR office.
The Employee and Labor Relations staff “have very specialized training and to have them consulting on things like a staff person who’s tardy, that just isn’t a good use of their time,” DeJong said. “And if the person out in the department feels like they have to pick up the phone or have to get a set of marching orders, that delays their ability to act. So, I think this is going to be a win-win.”
The Employee and Labor Relations team in HR is currently brainstorming with Michele Montag, executive director for staff personnel and senior assistant dean in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences, on what topics would be best handled on the unit level. DeJong hopes to have tentative proposals from that group in a week or two and then HR would move ahead to do some training.
He also plans to establish a Department of Shared Services, which employees or administrators can contact with problems that can’t be handled at the unit level, “and the folks there can either help them with the problem immediately or figure out exactly where to direct them,” DeJong said. “We want to make sure that we get consistent advice and support coming from that operation … and that we’re getting good direction for who within HR needs to take it to the next step.”
This new department will be led by Victoria Lancaster, who is coming over from the provost’s office after making faculty records “fully paperless.”
He will be looking at how to improve the number of staff who undergo an annual review process, a number he termed “shockingly” small. An annual review is something “every staff member deserves,” he said.
“One of the things I’m hearing is that our annual process for providing performance evaluations, which are supposed to be the foundation for salary changes, is a system that people aren’t particularly excited about,” said DeJong, who proposed to the directors of administration that they build a focus group on this subject. “Why don’t you go out and talk about what we have in place right now, what would you improve? Bring me a prototype, I’d love to see it. This is something we can build together and then go out and test drive and see how people like it.”
Staff classifications still in works
Asked by a Staff Council member whether he was going to re-evaluate staff classifications, DeJong said: “Absolutely yes — that is very high on the list.” The “Total Rewards” project that began under Johnson had been pushed to the back burner.
“I’ll be the first to say that is a critical project that we need to get back up and running quickly,” DeJong said in the interview. “We know that our compensation and classification system is outdated and is posing some challenges for us. But what I’ll say is that we are going to take that on in a very holistic way — looking broadly at the University through the lens of prospective and current employees and help frame a discussion about what sort of employer do we want Pitt to be.”
That includes looking not only at compensation and benefits and how they stack up against local, regional, national and international competitors, but also at work/life balance, professional development and evaluation, and whether employees identify with the mission of the University.
DeJong said there needs to be a campus-wide discussion about work/life balance issues such as flex time and telecommuting.
“Now, we don’t have a policy on flex time,” he said. “I think some managers naturally look at that and say, ‘Nobody says I can’t do that, so to the extent that it makes sense in my shop, I’m doing it.’ Other managers look at that and say, ‘Well, there’s no policy, so I’m not able to do that.’ So it’s not happening, even if it might be a possible.”
He can envision a focus group looking at the issue of flex time, including benchmarking against similar institutions, “and then coming up with, if not a formal policy, at least some guidelines to managers.”
A long history at Pitt
DeJong received his bachelor’s degree in economics from Central College in Pella, Iowa, and his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Iowa. He joined the University in 1989 as an assistant economics professor in the Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences; he was promoted to professor in 2001 and to chair of the Department of Economics in 2006.
When he first came to Pitt, he was focused on building up a research and teaching portfolio to get tenure, but very early on became interested in the administration.
“At first, not doing it, but just appreciating how important and how impactful administrators could be,” he said. “When I came here, I didn’t know what a provost was. I just felt like all I need is my office, my computer, and great students and colleagues.
“Well, early on you learn just how important staff are,” he said. “You can’t really know that when you’re a graduate student, it’s hard to know that even when you’re a young faculty member. And until there’s a project that you really need to interface with staff on, like hosting a conference or something like that, it’s really hard to appreciate how important the staff are.”
He also said watching the turmoil in the transition from Chancellor Wesley Posvar to Dennis O’Connor and then Mark Nordenberg “was really eye opening to me. Early on, I really took an academic interest in university administration.”
This led him to sign up for several committees, even before he got tenure. He has served on several committees within the economics department and the Dietrich School, as well as the University Planning and Budgeting Committee’s Parameters Subcommittee, the Advisory Committee for the Admission of Student Athletes, the NCAA Athletics Certification Subcommittee on Academic Integrity, the Faculty Admissions Support Team, and the Budget Committee of the Board of Trustees.
Earlier this summer, Provost Ann Cudd said DeJong would be hard to replace in the provost’s office. Her office will be undergoing some reorganization now that DeJong won't be coming back.
He is helping with the transition by meeting regularly with the provost’s chief of staff, Lucy Russell, as well as maintaining a role in capital planning and execution. He plans to maintain an active role in shared governance, and he’ll continue to do a two-part budget primer for new executives in the provost’s area.
“Plus, I live right across the street from (the provost), and I told her anytime you see me on my front porch, come on over.”
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-648-4294.
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