September 6, 2011; Source: Inside Higher Education | At the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Hilary Pennington, director of education, postsecondary success, and special initiatives for the foundation’s U.S. program since 2007, recently announced her departure slated for spring 2012. Pennington’s post at Gates followed a notable career path, including serving as an adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, as well as co-founding the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, a highly regarded research, consulting, and policy-development organization. In an email to grantees, Pennington said she was leaving to “get closer to work on the ground.”

According to an article at the online publication Inside Higher Education by Doug Lederman, Pennington isn’t the only senior education staffer to leave Gates recently. Tom Dawson, a senior policy officer at Gates “who has been in the thick of much of its discussion and grantmaking around higher education policy, left quietly this summer” and is now working at Laureate Higher Education Group, which owns a network of for-profit colleges around the world. Mark David Milliron, Pennington’s deputy since 2010 “whose high-impact presentations have made him a frequent speaker about the future of higher education,” is also planning to leave Gates.

The article raises the question as to whether Gates is reconsidering its focus on higher education, but a foundation spokesperson denies that, saying that people “have nothing to fear” regarding a potential withdrawal from this program area. Still, the size of the foundation, which was recently described by Alliance Magazine as an “800-pound gorilla,” has some observers concerned that it’s not only Gates’s dollars that would be a distressing loss to higher education but also its influence and ability to serve as a “force for change.” Time will tell.—CMG