How SU marketing turned toxic


fter meeting throughout March and April 2021 to discuss the internal culture of Syracuse University’s marketing department, findings from 21 members were distilled into a 15-page document. Along with allegations of sexism, the document details feelings among employees of being in “survival mode” and being unable to question leadership.

Much of the feedback in the report focuses on Dara Royer, the university’s current chief marketing officer, and her role in the department’s dysfunction. Through the 10 pages of the report, which records employee feedback from “Directors and Above,” Royer’s name appears 21 times.

“When Dara’s in the room, people shut up,” one person said when asked about the division’s culture.

Today, the vast majority of SU’s marketing division works out of the Nancy Cantor Warehouse in downtown Syracuse. Royer’s office sits roughly two miles away on main campus in Crouse-Hinds Hall.

“Team is terrified of having to present something to Dara (Royer) because she’s so far removed from day-to-day work,” one employee noted.

“(It is) literally difficult to access Dara (Royer),” one person stated. “When in the ‘office,’ she is physically removed from (the) team, spending most of her time at her office on campus.”

Former employees at SU have written memos and voiced concern to SU human resources, ombuds and leadership regarding the university’s marketing and communications divisions — namely Royer’s mismanagement.

Several employees said they were met with silence after bringing up their concerns with Royer and the department to the university. Those employees, both in internal letters and statements to The Daily Orange, said Royer fostered internal divisions, silenced dissent and created a hostile work environment.

Many of the people The D.O. spoke to over the last few months about SU marketing and Royer expressed fear that Royer would retaliate against them if they spoke publicly. In a June 2022 email to Royer obtained by The D.O., former project director for SU Brittany Terwilliger wrote that she was in a “privileged” position to talk without fear after leaving the university.

“When I started my new job last winter, you had done such a number on my self confidence that I was truly amazed that people found me impressive,” wrote Terwilliger, who also CC’d the university’s HR department. “I have heard the same from others who have recently left SU marketing.”

Terwilliger wrote in the email that Royer had micromanaged and relentlessly criticized her and her coworkers. She said during her time at SU, Royer’s favoritism came with incentives like increased access to Royer and better chances of her supporting employees’ ideas. Those who disagreed or pushed back were met with ridicule.

“On numerous occasions I saw you challenge a person’s ideas/work — even ideas/work that you had previously supported — just because that person had earned your disfavor,” Terwilliger wrote.

Another former employee who worked with SU’s web team said that while people were able to question third-party organizations SU was working with on marketing campaigns, any time someone did the same regarding leadership within the department, it was dismissed.

“It’s always Dara’s inner circle versus everybody else,” they said.

Terwilliger said Royer determines her favoritism based on loyalty to her.

“The way to remain in your favor is to tell you what you want to hear, praise you, never challenge you, and find other people to blame for your mistakes,” Terwilliger wrote to Royer.

Culture Group Findings – Sy… by The Daily Orange

A different marketing employee, who left the university in the winter of 2021, also said Royer has a pattern of elevating the people in her department who say ‘yes’ to her.

“When you get to these elevated conversations … there is nobody who is going to … basically, respectfully and collaboratively disagree, which would create a healthy workplace,” they said.“There’s none of that.”

In her parting email, Terwilliger also wrote that Royer was “very cliquey” with how she shared information.

“You have your inner circle of people with whom you share information, while others are kept in the dark like Plebeians until you decide to make a formal announcement,” Terwilliger wrote.

One note in the 2021 internal “Directors and Above” report also said that those who Royer favors have better access to leadership and are promoted faster. Terwilliger, who participated in the review, wrote in a message to The D.O. that the report’s notes were a “generally agreed upon” consensus with those participating.

On Feb. 17, The D.O. wrote a series of questions to SU as well as to Royer individually. Royer never directly responded. The university initially responded to the six questions with a single sentence.

“The University carefully reviewed these allegations and, following the review, determined them to be without merit,” a university spokesperson said.

Upon receiving the questions a second time, the university wrote in another email that “change can be hard” within organizations.

“Dara Royer was hired more than five years ago to bring needed transformational change and a new strategic vision to the University’s marketing efforts, and she has accomplished those goals,” a university spokesperson wrote.

Lisa Thompson previously worked as the liaison between SU Central Marketing and the division of Advancement and External Affairs, which has the express goal of creating relationships with alumni and donors. In September 2021, Royer asked Thompson to “rip the band-aid off” between Central Marketing and AEA, according to a memo Thompson addressed to SU’s Board of Trustees and “Syracuse University Leadership.”

Ripping the band-aid off, to Royer, meant dropping marketing support to AEA unless Royer and her team directed the strategies. Thompson wrote in the memo that she felt compelled to listen — she had an understanding that from Royer’s perspective, it was her job to carry out a directive without question.

After she protested some of Royer’s directives, Thompson wrote that Royer met with her and proposed without any clear definition that Thompson “transition.” Thompson said she was asked to resign after the meeting and then was let go when she refused to do so.

“If you conduct your due diligence,” Thompson wrote to SU leadership, “you may find that … Dara Royer is not the leader she portrays herself as.”

Thompson said she never received a response from SU.

One former senior staffer within marketing, who asked not to be named, said they were continually admonished for offering observations to Royer, despite their having decades of experience in higher education marketing. Royer had none before coming to SU.

“I concluded that my role was to support Dara’s vision and to never question her direction,” they wrote in a letter to colleagues after they left the university, “even when that direction was internally contradictory, vague, conflicting over time or ill-advised given the potential reaction of university constituents.”

Stephanie Zaso | Digital Design Director

The same former staffer wrote in the letter that they had, on “hundreds” of occasions, seen Royer speak “vitriolically, unfairly and sometimes untruthfully about peers and colleagues.”

“She has unprofessionally referred to her direct peers as ‘stupid,’ ‘unable to manage,’, ‘unreasonable and wrong’, ‘a mess’ and completely not strategic,’” they wrote.

In one example, the former senior staffer said they observed Royer impose “unreasonable” expectations on an employee placed on medical leave. They said Royer repeatedly bullied and targeted the employee throughout the employee’s tenure at SU, calling them “unreliable, incompetent and overly dramatic.”

Also in their final message to colleagues, they said the AEA team was one of Royer’s most frequent targets.

The university defined “psychological safety” as a person’s feeling that they can speak up without punishment or embarrassment within the 15-page report. One person included in the report said they didn’t feel psychological safety in the department under Royer. Those in the “Directors and Above” meetings noted at the time that it “doesn’t always feel safe to disagree.”

In the report’s conclusions, which listed what the group wanted to discuss further, participants noted that men get many more positive comments than women in the office, making women feel “less than.”

One person remarked that “male and female representation isn’t equally distributed across leadership within creative teams.” Monica Rexach Ortiz, a former member of SU marketing’s creative team, said she saw the imbalance while working for the university.

“There were women doing the same job who were not being recognized, and it was really frustrating to observe,” Rexach said. “It just didn’t feel great for women in the office. And it’s weird because Dara is a woman and you would expect that to help, but I think that that workplace has a long way to go.”

Soon after Royer joined the university, SU reorganized what was then the marketing and communications division. On June 12, 2018, Royer and SU leadership brought the entirety of the department into a single room in the Schine Student Center. Behind the employees was a stack of white envelopes, each with an employee’s name on it and a meeting assignment.

For some, the assignment meant their jobs were eliminated. SU gave those employees a courtesy interview for an open position, for which they had three days to prepare. Many ended up leaving the university or retiring early.

At the time of the meeting, Royer was the university’s chief communications officer. In an audio recording of the meeting, she told the group she knew the timeline was fast.

“We recognize that this creates a lot of anxiety,” Royer said. “And we want to help people know and have clarity on what this means for them personally and professionally.”

The D.O. reported in 2018 that SU eliminated the jobs of nearly 30 people during the reorganization. At the end of the rehiring process, 13 no longer worked for the marketing and communications division. More recent documentation shows that six people who went through the process had worked for the university for at least 30 years.

The reorganization prompted SU professors Tula Goenka and Coran Klaver to start a petition to express concern over the restructuring process.

“This may be the most expedient way of changing job titles and job descriptions,” Goenka told The D.O. in 2018. “But the toll it takes on people’s lives and the anxiety people had for that one week is just not acceptable.

Rexach called the whole process “a shock.”

“It was a feeling of disbelief and you’re trying not to freak out, but you’re freaking out,” she said.

Stephanie Zaso | Digital Design Director

While many employees were disappointed with their experience at SU, some did speak positively of Royer and the marketing division as a whole.

SU brought in Alex DeRosa, the executive director of multimedia, in April 2019, a year after the reorganization. In his time at the university, he said he’s grown as a leader and that his current role is more fulfilling than others he had before coming to SU.

“Marketing was kind of formed quickly and I think as you grow into these roles and you bring new people in I think the culture is always evolving and switching,” DeRosa said. “We’ve come a long way in that and I personally feel like I work with some great people.”

Another employee also spoke positively of SU marketing and of Royer. Robin Wade, a member of SU’s University Leadership Team as well as the university’s executive director of digital marketing, said it’s one of the greatest organizations she’s ever worked in.

“I’m so proud to be an employee here,” Wade said. “We’re educating the future of our world … it’s something that just feels like an honor.”

Some comments in the internal review also rationalized some of Royer’s actions, citing pressures above her.

“This University is behind in modern marketing,” one review participant wrote. “Dara (Royer) was tasked with squeezing 10 years’ worth of marketing growth into 3 years and it’s taxing everyone to death. It’s suffocating.”

When discussing the department’s creative review process, one person attending the meetings noted that even considering some people’s criticisms, Royer is in a tough spot.

“Dara (Royer) tries her best to stay positive and constructive,” they said. “No matter what form a creative review takes, we all have to have thick skins.”

Royer has also participated in women’s empowerment events on campus, including moderating a conversation with Provost Gretchen Ritter in February 2022 for the university’s Women in Leadership initiative. Royer herself is also on the steering committee of SU’s WiL initiative.

Still, multiple employees, including Rexach and Thompson, said the division’s toxic environment has led people to leave SU marketing “in droves.” Rexach and Terwilliger both said they left the university voluntarily. SU did not directly answer questions from The D.O. regarding the department’s turnover.

For those who stayed during the turnover, it meant a constant responsibility to train new hires.

“If you constantly have to train people, it really puts more on your plate to do as somebody who has been there for a while and as somebody who knows what they’re doing,” Rexach said. “You’re the person that is turned to to help people who are new with their job.”

The employee who left in winter 2021 also said that while training was constant, so were interviews. The “revolving door” of employees completely disrupted the division’s ability to work, the former employee said.

Terwilliger said in a message to The D.O. that her thoughts on her time at SU have not changed since she sent her June email to Royer and SU HR. She said the university never responded to the email as of April 18.

“SU marketing is the Dara Royer Show — it’s all about your ideas, what you like, what you want, what you approve,” Terwilliger wrote to Royer. “After being there for a few months, all of your benevolent words start to ring false.”

Illustration by Lindy Truitt | Assistant Illustration Editor

Contact Kyle: [email protected] | @Kyle_Chouinard

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