The new director of strategic enrollment technology at the University of Montana works in the chain of command of his wife, vice president for enrollment and strategic communications Cathy Cole.
The vice president does not directly supervise her spouse. However, the reporting structure can run contrary to some human resource policies, and Jeff Cole received a quick promotion and significant pay increase compared to the outgoing computer analyst.
At the same time, communications director Paula Short and Cathy Cole note Jeff Cole has driven improvements to a system that sorely needed it at a critical time for UM; he has repaired a broken software system that manages enrollment, is helping to bring new students to campus, and is ensuring recruiters can manage the recruitment pipeline.
This week, the UM employees shared the way the recruitment took place and the improvements made for the flagship as a result.
For example, UM has planned six orientations this spring for new students coming to campus in the fall, and all of them have been full, said Cathy Cole, who started at UM last summer.
UM also counts more applicants who have been admitted to date — 2% more compared to one year ago. Enrollment has been a top priority for UM because it has experienced a steep and persistent decline for several years.
Additionally, UM said software fixes made by Jeff Cole will allow recruiters to send targeted communication this summer to prospective students who have not yet enrolled.
“There’s been a number of faults within the software that I’ve addressed, and it’s been fun to do. I like solutions,” Jeff Cole said this week.
Enrollment is a top priority for UM, but Cathy Cole said the software system was not sending out necessary communications to students last fall in the middle of recruitment for the following year. It was a critical time for the flagship.
“We needed someone who could just step in and take care of it,” Cathy Cole said.
According to UM, Jeff Cole started work Nov. 5 in a temporary role in Information Technology. Jeff Cole said he did so after being turned down for another UM position, but he said associate vice president for enrollment Mike Heitkamp quickly saw his skills could benefit the campus and urged him to turn down a more lucrative offer off campus and wait for a new job to open at UM.
“We had many conversations about what the job was going to be, and on that basis, I turned down the other opportunity,” Jeff Cole said.
Cathy Cole said Heitkamp, who reported directly to her, informed her Jeff Cole could help UM and was the best candidate for a permanent position in the Admissions Office. The job he holds is four positions removed from Cole.
“I questioned him (Heitkamp) very deeply about that at the time. I said, ‘Are you sure? Is this something you’re saying because you think you need to or is it something you really believe?’” Cathy Cole said. “He assured me Jeff was the perfect candidate for the job.”
Heitkamp told her Jeff Cole was not only making fixes to the system, but said the staff liked him and he was teaching them to use the CRM — Constituent Relationship Management software — in a way they had not been able to in the past. (Heitkamp no longer works at UM and an attempt to reach him was unsuccessful.)
“I recused myself immediately from any part of the hiring,” Cathy Cole said.
UM is a large employer in Missoula and a number of married couples work at the university.
A recruitment authorization form filed with Human Resource Services notes a computer systems analyst position opened in the Admissions Office on Nov. 9. UM noted the pay for the outgoing computer analyst was $46,528, and the form requested an upgraded salary.
The form was signed by Cathy Cole, UM President Seth Bodnar via a staff member, and another official whose signature is illegible (Short said the signature is from interim finance vice president Rosi Keller). Cole said the previous person had been in the job so long it was no longer at market value, and compensation review is standard practice.
Human Resource Services paperwork noted the title for the new position as director of strategic enrollment technology, with a "compensation final approval" stamp dated Nov. 21. The new position bumped up some responsibilities and was eligible for a contract, which ended up being $60,000, according to UM.
The recruitment authorization form initially noted UM would hold an open recruitment with people off campus eligible to apply. However, the job posting said a "campus-only recruitment" would take place with only current employees eligible, including temporary staff and students.
“It’s my understanding that Rosi (Keller) and Mike (Heitkamp) decided to make it an internal posting because there were a handful of people on campus that could move into the position without us losing any time. I had no part in those conversations. None,” Cathy Cole said.
The job was posted from Dec. 6 to Dec. 18, and Short said three people applied, although one was ineligible. UM noted the other two were screened and interviewed.
Jeff Cole said the job was less money than the one he turned down, and much less than he had earned as a manager in Florida. But he said it was appealing because he would have time off, maximize retirement contributions and do meaningful work.
"If I'm not adding value, I don't want to be here. If I didn't get the job on merit, I didn't want it," Jeff Cole said.
He also described himself as “old school.” In the interview, he was asked why he should get the job, and Jeff Cole said instead of making a pitch, he said he wanted the job if he was the best candidate.
“I’m also sensitive to the fact that I’m in the same division (as Cathy Cole). Why would I want to make things difficult? It’s just not who I am,” Jeff Cole said.
Heitkamp chaired the search committee and remains on contract with UM through June, but he is no longer on the job. Short said there are plans to backfill his position, which is currently the top post between the vice president and Jeff Cole.
Transparency is key
Mark Marsen, a special expertise panelist for the Society for Human Resource Management, said it’s generally “wonky” in theory to have family members working for family members, but it is going to happen in the real world.
“It becomes a matter of transparency and making darn sure that it’s very clear that the person who is hired is the most eligible, the most qualified,” said Marsen, who noted he himself previously worked in a chain of command where he was considered “the doctor’s wife” and had to overcome coworker skepticism.
Some organizations have policies that prohibit spouses from working in the same chain of command or the same department, he said, and some even go so far as to prohibit spouses from working in the same building.
But Marsen said bosses can have all kinds of biases and give preferential treatment to a variety of employees, not just significant others. He has worked in human resources some 30 years.
In cases where family members come on board, he said hiring institutions should be mindful of how the recruitment looks and be prepared to explain it.
“This is what we have done to make sure that we have made the best decision given the circumstances,” Marsen said.
He said he advocates for transparent processes and open communication.
“It really comes down to being professional, being an adult, and really not being afraid to communicate candidly,” Marsen said.
Jeff Cole provided the Missoulian with a copy of his resume, which highlights developing and launching software that improved the efficiency of a manufacturing business and mentoring and training staff. The resume notes Cole most recently worked as a plant manager for Florida Custom Marble starting in 2012, driving production and profitability.
Cole’s resume also lists a bachelor's degree in manufacturing management from North East London Polytechnic. Short noted he holds a post-graduate certificate in education (mathematics and physics).
"His expertise is principally in systems, process and automation, and he works to examine them to optimize performance," Short said in an email. "This is the key strength he brings."
Jeff Cole said being able to get software to do what it should do has always been fairly easy for him. He’s “turned many stones and found many problems” with the software at UM and its implementation, and he’s addressed them as much as possible.
The CRM holds roughly 500,000 records from the last two years. The fixes mean recruiters now have more autonomy in working within the system and can be more nimble in their outreach to prospective students, Cathy Cole said.
“It has given our recruiters the ability to control how and when they talk to students or prospects. We’ve never been able to do that before,” Cathy Cole said. “It was always driven from the top down.”
She said the access also means recruiters can give her immediate feedback on which communications are working and which are not so she can write pieces that have more impact. “It has revitalized the entire recruitment cycle.”
The current system also has limitations, and Jeff Cole said the work he is doing behind the scenes to improve it serves to prepare him to more quickly ramp up and integrate a new system once UM starts an anticipated upgrade.
“It’s still a flawed piece of software, but at least it’s a flawed piece of software that’s working. It’s a work in progress,” Jeff Cole said.
Cathy Cole said UM plans to issue a request for proposals for a new system this summer.
UM also plans to hire a computer systems analyst to assist Jeff Cole, who is currently handling management responsibilities along with “housekeeping” duties for the CRM.