A Mandate for More Interim Presidents

by Bryan E. Carlson and Kevin J. Matthews

Presidential leadership transitions on campus can be somewhat traumatic events. The ripple effects can feel more like earthquake tremors at times, unsettling the entire institution. Contributing to these difficulties may be the lack of succession planning in higher education – as compared to the corporate sector – and poorly-defined procedures for dealing with presidential leadership transitions.

One immediate way to improve and refine this process would be through the increased use of outside interim presidents who are not themselves candidates for that particular permanent presidential appointment. Consider these seven major advantages and opportunities that could accrue to American higher education if interim presidencies became more common.

1. An interim president provides a governing board with sufficient time to elevate and enhance the search process for a permanent president.
The hiring and firing of presidents is one of the most important fiduciary duties of all governing boards. When governing boards decide to utilize an outside interim president, the hiring of the permanent president can become a much more deliberative activity. Specifically, an interim president can expand the decision-making time frame without jeopardizing ongoing institutional operations, providing the means for the governing board to recalibrate the search for the permanent president with a greater degree of precision and focus.

2. A veteran leader not in contention for a permanent appointment as president can focus on repositioning the institution according to the governing board’s immediate objectives.
This type of arrangement helps to ensure objectivity and a disciplined focus in guiding the institution according to the board’s mandates. In the interval, the governing board gains an opportunity to more clearly define what kind of leader is required. In turn, that clearer definition should attract more appropriate and suitable candidates.

3. Experienced interim presidents who are excluded from consideration as candidates can offer vital information about the institution’s needs during the search process.
In most engagements, the board commissions the interim president to: (1) complete a comprehensive assessment of current operations from stem to stern; (2) review and assess the institution’s strategic plan; and (3) present a comprehensive report to the board, which should take place within a specified period of time. Ideally, these tasks will be enumerated in the engagement documents.

4. Interim presidents should be prepared to extend their terms of service at the request of the governing board.
After reviewing the interim president’s report, the board must determine if there are any major issues or challenges that should be addressed by the interim president before they proceed with the search for the permanent president. This critical variable suggests that the length of interim service should be flexible and predicated upon mutual agreement. Hence, the interim president needs to be positioned and prepared from the outset of the engagement for the possibility of an extension in order to address any or all of the major issues and challenges that the board would like to resolve.

5. The interim president serves an important role in transitioning the senior executive team.
The interim president’s commission to review and assess institutional operations should include evaluating the performance of the senior executive team and any other direct reports to the president. The importance of this task should not be underestimated. The senior executive team will be facing a period of great uncertainty in terms of their own professional careers, as new permanent presidents often appoint their own leadership teams. At the same time, the senior leadership team will be expected to provide continuity and stability for the institution throughout the period of presidential transition. Hence, the interim president plays a key role in providing support, guidance, and sometimes reassurance for the senior executive team.

In those instances when a senior executive might be best advised to pursue new opportunities at other institutions, the interim president provides an important buffer for the permanent president by dealing in advance with appropriate executive transition issues.

6. An interim president can help the governing board assess the viability of internal candidates and the necessity of an external search.
An interim president is ideally positioned to help with succession planning if there are one or more viable and attractive candidates among the internal executive staff – potentially even mentoring and evaluating internal candidates that have been identified by the board. If strong internal candidates emerge, it might be advisable for the board and the institution to first complete an internal search process before looking outside. If an internal candidate is selected, the external search can be avoided. If not, the elimination of serious internal candidates should improve the caliber of external applicants since many compelling candidates might not apply if they suspect the search is wired to an inside candidate.

7. The interim president can smooth the transition for the permanent president.
Once the interim president has completed and fulfilled all of the objectives and expectations that have been identified by the board, the entire institution should have a much better sense of the current strengths and weaknesses facing the new president. By establishing realistic and achievable aspirations for the future, the interim president and governing board provide an important foundation for the new leader and a positive starting point for the next administration.

An interim president sets the stage for a successful search, recruitment, and appointment of the next permanent president. The outcome of the presidential search will almost always be different in those situations where an interim has been named-and typically better-than where the board proceeds without one.

An immediate and impulsive presidential search, especially when an institution does not have a realistic or objective assessment of its own current status and its competitive position in the academic universe, may not yield as strong a candidate or the selection of the right candidate for the situation. . The campus will not have acclimated to a change in leadership and impediments to a smooth transition will probably not have been cleared away. The overarching reasons to utilize an outside veteran who cannot be a candidate is to reduce the likelihood of disrupting the “internal politics” of the institution, to preserve the integrity of the candidate pools for the permanent search and to increase the likelihood of a successful tenure. for the next permanent president.

Given the increasing complexities and challenges in American higher education, we are certain there are many other potential opportunities and advantages to be derived from naming an interim president during a leadership transition. Although naming an interim president may not be the right solution for every campus, we do believe that every governing board should consider the possibility of doing so. We believe the result of such consideration would be both more frequent naming of interim presidents and more successful leadership transitions within higher education.

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