Interim Administrative Appointments in Higher Education: An Institutional Perspective
Although not the result of any formal survey research, the prevalence of interim appointments in administrative positions from department chair level and higher seems to be on the rise. Whether driven from financial considerations or personnel qualifications, the diminished commitment to a long-term solution seems to be a desirable option. In recent years this has been the case at our home institution, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) and at other IU campuses. While it is difficult to ascertain the explicit motivation in every interim appointment situation, we have identified some benefits by closely examining the circumstances of individual cases. In this article, we will discuss the motivations for making interim appointments and the benefits derived from them by the institution, as well as the roles for an interim in the context of the needs of the campus and local unit. The impetus and value for an individual to seek and secure an interim appointment will be the subject of a subsequent article.
Interim positions often arise when an unexpected vacancy occurs or when there is insufficient time available for a full search. Even when an administrator announces months earlier an intention to leave the post, unsuccessful searches can necessitate an interim appointment. Events that commonly lead to sudden vacancies include resignations for personal reasons or the inability to meet the demands of the position (illness, accident, etc.), acceptance of a new position on campus or elsewhere, or the administration makes a late decision that a replacement is needed. Also, there are those occasions when everyone gets an email stating that a particular administrator has resigned and left campus with no announced reason.
The campus might choose to delay seeking a permanent replacement due to fiscal realities associated with a new external appointment. A resignation where the administrator remains with the university in some capacity, including as a faculty member, means that hiring an external replacement would add a new line with its associated costs. Furthermore, at some institutions, it is expected that newly hired administrators come with a “package” that may include additional new lines, renovated space, major instrumentation, etc., a situation that exacerbates any existing fiscal issues. If a competent interim is internally available, it is not surprising that colleges and universities might delay a search while they reassess their needs and accumulate/free-up the resources required.
Internal interim appointments
Some institutions routinely promote internal individuals to interim positions in order to thoughtfully evaluate members of their academic community for administrative potential. Using delayed searches or extended interim appointments is an opportunity to explore the internal candidate’s potential for the permanent position. This approach is essentially a “live” and extended interview. The candidate is aware of the situation, gains invaluable in-depth experience, and can decide whether or not administration remains an aspirational career goal. A positive performance will place the individual in an advantageous position in an open search or could result in a successful petition to forego a search and be directly appointed to the position.
Natural succession in appointments
In many situations, the interim position is filled by the second in command. For a provost, it would be an associate provost who advances to the interim role, while for a dean it might be the executive associate dean or an associate dean. For an interim chair, faculty members are the obvious choice. Not all second-in-command individuals are suited for or even interested in an interim role. Associate deans do not uniformly have upward administrative aspirations since many of them are focused on faculty-oriented or student-oriented projects (student affairs, finance, graduate education) that align better with personal interests than global responsibility.
Another dilemma for an internal interim candidate is the challenge of effective leadership; is there a willingness by the candidate to solve problems or change operations that could negatively impact them upon returning to their previous roles? Potential retribution from other members of the unit or embarrassment from attempted fixes that failed might damage their future prospects for securing a permanent administrative position.
Internal vs. external interim appointments
When there is no identifiable or suitable internal choice, a candidate might emerge from outside, typically from another college, school, or campus. An external interim is more common in those cases in which the previous administrator was pressured to resign (or was removed) due to performance problems. Removal may have resulted from direct dissatisfaction by their appointing supervisor or emerged from complaints within the administrator’s own unit.
The former could be the result of unit dysfunction, failure to advance institutional goals, failure to support and mentor new faculty, insufficiency to address student academic needs, poor performance in research or expected scholarship, etc. In the latter case, faculty may have offered sufficient cause and justification to create a clear path for action or, more problematically, they may have an unjustified vendetta against the administrator for past actions. It is important that the upper administration avoid the perception that it is “rewarding the dissidents” by not appointing an internal interim. In these cases, an internal interim appointment may also be risky from the perspective of knowing whether a given individual is part of the problem or a potential solution. In addition, this problematic environment requires a proven, experienced leader to address the challenges.
Finding experienced administrators
Candidates for appointment should meet some general experiential objectives: previous successful experience in a similar position, personnel management and budgetary skills, knowledge of institutional operations and goals, and others defined by the role. Why would an experienced former administrator take on one of these roles? Assuming they possess the skills for this position, they also should understand what institutional service means and how important it can be to model that behavior. Although not in a current administrative role or perhaps retired, the candidate may have since recharged their enthusiasm to the point where they miss the action of leadership. Candidates from multi-campus systems are good options when available. Another possibility is to appoint a highly skilled existing administrator to the interim role as an additional responsibility. This option works best if the interim’s primary unit has a sufficiently strong infrastructure to continue high-level functioning without full-time leadership.
Multiple vacancies in chain-of-command create special needs
Longer than average interim appointment terms may occur when there are “stacked” vacancies in the chain of command. This takes place when there are vertical and/or simultaneous administrative openings, involving direct report lines. Chair-dean and dean-provost combinations are examples. One strategy is to delay a junior position search in order to provide the new senior hire the opportunity to participate in the selection process. It is an important consideration to allow the new senior administrator to assemble the best team. In other words, the junior position becomes a part of the “package” for the senior hire.
Creating the charge for the interim appointment
The charge for an interim appointment by the appointing administrator is a very important message to the unit from the perspective of the unit’s future expectations. Whether the interim is internal or external, the hiring administrator needs to establish clear goals for the candidate. Responsibilities evolve quickly in higher education, and identifying a “caretaker role” for interim is not in the interest of either campus or unit.
Bringing in an external interim in order get a unit with problems back on track typically affects the timing of identifying a suitable, permanent replacement. Most vacancies result in searches that are launched within a few months of the vacancy or at the next hiring cycle. Depending on the nature of the unit’s dysfunction and how long it has been underperforming, the experienced interim may require additional time to get it moving in a positive direction. To open a search to fill the leadership position of a troubled unit is far less likely to be successful than it would if the unit functioned well. Furthermore, upper administration would not want to publicly reveal issues like this and thus would move to fix them before moving on with seeking new leadership.
Colleges and universities are all faced with the reality of identifying individuals from within their ranks to temporarily fill administrative vacancies that result from an unplanned departure or from a search that did not identify or recruit a suitable candidate. In order to make the decision as to who should be placed into the interim leadership role, several factors should be considered. Among them are the expected length of service, the availability of competent and respected junior leadership, and the condition (smooth running and highly functioning versus problematic) of the unit. For ordinary circumstances, interims chosen from the previous leadership team would be appropriate except for perhaps problematic units (or those where a good deal of change is expected). For those, it may be best to appoint an experienced and successful present or former administrator to serve as interim.
Finally, interim administrators are critical to institutional continuity and improvement. Institutional leadership should regularly review lists of potential interim candidates for any significant academic position. This will save time in identifying and vetting individuals for interim posts and other vacancies if and when they occur.
Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning and finance, professor, and former chair of biology at IUPUI.
David J. Malik, PhD, is chancellor’s professor emeritus of chemistry and chemical biology, IUPUI. Previous roles include chief academic officer, dean, and chair. Some appointments included an interim status that later evolved to the full administrative role.