How to Optimize the Interim Presidency

By Kristin R. Tichenor    //    Volume 27,  Number 6   //    November/December 2019

“ The modern university presidency presents a proverbial minefield that future and current presidents must survive.”¹

Interim presidencies occur for a variety of reasons: the retirement of a longtime president, an unexpected departure for a new job opportunity, or in a worst-case scenario, sudden illness or death. In today’s hypercompetitive, underresourced and overpressured higher education environment, much is expected of college presidents and many are found wanting. Presidencies under pressure can result in abrupt endings, which in turn may necessitate interim appointments. Interim presidencies are more common than many realize. The American College President Study, administered most recently in 2017, found that 28 percent of the 1,546 respondents reported serving as the interim presidents in their current or prior positions². Given the average age of the current college president—62 years—and the fact that more than half of presidents plan to leave their posts within five years, trustees are likely to be faced with a leadership transition at some point during their time on the board. An interim presidency may well be part of that transition.

The impact of an interim presidency on a board cannot be overstated, especially when the presidential post is vacated suddenly. The board’s charge is to protect the institution’s financial, institutional, and reputational assets. When a president’s departure is the result of dissatisfaction on the part of the board, the interim presidency is an even more critical endeavor. A recent study of presidential transitions examined involuntary presidential departures over a 28-year time span—between 1988 and 2016. The researchers found that more than half of the involuntary turnovers took place between 2008 and 2016. In other words, there were more involuntary presidential departures in the last nine years than in the prior two decades³. Bear in mind that a poorly handled presidential transition can negatively impact student enrollment, academic accreditation, donor satisfaction, faculty retention, and campus climate. There may be financial and legal liabilities associated with the prior presidency. From a leadership transition standpoint, this is the perfect storm. In this high-stakes environment, what can boards do to ensure a successful segue to new leadership?

No Leadership Lull

There are three key questions for boards to consider when dealing with an interim presidency: 1) Who will lead the institution during the interim period? 2) What are the board’s expectations for the interim president? 3) How can the interim president and the board use the transition period to stabilize and strengthen the institution?

Job one for the board is to appoint an experienced leader with the capacity to adapt quickly and keep the institution moving in a positive direction. Given the volatility of the higher education marketplace, the interim president needs to understand campus culture and the competitive landscape in which the institution operates. In addition, the person the board chooses as interim should be able to build rapport with and instill confidence in senior staff, academic leadership, students, faculty, alumni, and donors. Leadership transitions tend to generate anxiety across the college campus. Cabinet members are wondering whether or not to jump ship and seek employment elsewhere. Faculty are bracing for board interference in faculty governance matters. Students worry that their concerns will not be addressed. Everyone wonders about who the next president will be and what changes that will bring. It is important to have an interim president who can provide reassurance and bring a sense of stability to the community amidst all of the uncertainty and angst.

Most importantly, the interim president should have both the authority and the fortitude to make difficult decisions. To that point, board expectations for the interim president should be comparable to that of any president. Conventional wisdom suggests that the role of the interim president is to maintain equilibrium. Many interim presidents take office thinking that their role is to “keep the trains running on time.” That approach disregards the reality that there are invariably a number of pressing issues that need to be addressed. Putting these issues on hold until the new president arrives puts the institution and the new president at risk. The best course of action for the board is to make sure the interim president is ready, willing, and able to tackle the problems at hand.

What types of issues crop up during an interim period? A study of interim presidencies found that institutions had to grapple with everything from declining enrollments and deferred maintenance to accreditation concerns and Title IX litigation.4 At each of the institutions, challenges typically fell into two categories: the legacy agenda—work left undone by or issues associated with the prior president—and an emerging agenda, which consisted of unforeseen developments that required action on the part of the college or university.

In each of the case studies, the board was surprised by the breadth and depth of the issues that surfaced during the interim period. Board members relied heavily on the outgoing president for their information on the state of the institution and, as a result, entered the interim period unaware of all of the challenges facing the college or university. At one university, a board member who agreed to serve as the interim president discovered that the outgoing president had dramatically downplayed the impact of declining net tuition revenue on the operating budget. The full extent of the downward spiral was not visible to the board until the interim president had spent enough time with the finance team to gain an in-depth understanding of the revenue and expenditure trends. At another institution, the prior president’s unwillingness to tackle personnel issues in the dean of students’ office triggered a number of Title IX cases against the institution. In a third case, the university faced the risk of major attrition among the administrative and academic leadership due to abusive management practices by the former president. By the end of the interim period, the trustees had a much better appreciation of the full range and scope of the challenges at hand.

Above and beyond issues left in the wake of the prior presidency, the reality of life on a college campus is that new challenges are always on the horizon. Interim presidents have to contend with disciplinary issues involving faculty or student misconduct, extreme weather events, or political developments that impact the community at large. One interim president had to help the campus work through a series of student suicides. Another was confronted with unanticipated turnover among members of the senior leadership team. Whatever the source, these challenges required swift and decisive action on the part of the interim president and the board. Failure to do so can cause an institution to lose momentum and, in so doing, compromise its ability to attract and retain students and faculty, donors and, ultimately, a new president. The bottom line is the interim president must be able to make difficult decisions and solve challenging problems and the board must be prepared to support that effort.

Given all of these challenges, how can trustees possibly use the interim period to positive advantage? Here is the good news: If the board has a highly qualified interim president in place and if it gives that individual the authority and support needed to address the issues at hand, the institution will almost certainly emerge from the interim period in a position of strength. The interim period, when managed well, gives the board, the senior leadership team, and the community at large the chance to take stock of their current situation, identify areas of needed improvement, and make the appropriate changes to move forward. As a result, the institution is better able to capitalize on new opportunities. One interim president (an alumnus of the institution) secured the single largest gift in the university’s history and brought the capital campaign to a successful conclusion. Another institution created a new framework for community engagement that dramatically improved campus morale and staff retention. Other institutions made changes to budget processes, academic programs, student recruitment, and board governance. These developments were in addition to (or perhaps because of) work done to resolve the other challenges at hand. The bonus is that matters resolved during the interim period pave the way for a smoother onboarding experience for the new president and enable the new administration to focus on the future and not the past.

In the words of one interim president, the goal is ‘no leadership lull.’ His successor applauded that approach, noting that “…it was more than keeping the place running. It was really continuing to position the university for what was going to come under the next president.”5 Building on these experiences, boards can leverage the interim period to strengthen an institution and make the college or university more attractive to future presidential candidates.

Recommendations for Boards

The success of the interim period is often measured by finding a suitable replacement president, but the likelihood of success on that score is directly related to decisions made by the board in the wake of the prior president’s departure. One replacement president summed it up in the following way:

The board had two jobs at the moment. One was to move fast and the other was to move intentionally. The fast was obviously to get the interim president and the intentionally was to make sure that they had a good process and involved the community in the search for the longer-term president…I think they did both of those things really well (Tichenor, p. 100).

An institution’s ability to attract and hire a strong successor—and to ensure a smooth onboarding experience—is improved when boards make informed decisions about the interim presidency. That includes developing clear criteria and expectations for the interim president and identifying the core priorities for the interim period, recognizing that there will be a number of unknown challenges to contend with during the interregnum. It also entails taking a hard look at the role that the board may have played in the last presidency, for better or for worse. The following strategies are suggested for improving governance during an interim period:

1. Be prepared. In the same way that institutions participate in an annual financial audit, boards should consider engaging in an annual senior leadership audit with facilitated discussion of succession planning for themselves, for the president, and for the senior leadership team. Only 24 percent of the institutions that participated in the American College President Study reported having a presidential succession plan in place.6

2. Engage the senior leadership team. Regular communication with the senior team is always a good idea but especially when a presidential departure is anticipated. Direct interactions with the senior team will give the board a sense of the challenges that may arise during the interim period and will help maintain stability within the cabinet.

3. Expect surprises. College and university presidents exert a great deal of control over information flowing to the board. Once the prior president has left and the trustees are in direct contact with campus stakeholders, the board is likely to gain an entirely new perspective on the challenges and opportunities at hand.

4. Seek assistance. Recognizing that boards often have limited experience in higher education management, they should seek out that expertise internally and externally. Internal sources include faculty, staff, and students. Many insights can be gleaned from interactions with members of the campus community. External sources of expertise include higher education nonprofit organizations and professional search firms that specialize in higher education.

5. Slow down. Resist the urge to “fast track” the presidential search. The board should be intentional about the search process and clearly understand the needs of the campus. Time spent on community engagement and reflection helps to ensure alignment between institutional needs and candidate strengths, as well as greater satisfaction with the final search outcome on the part of the campus.

6. Choose wisely. Putting a highly committed trustee in the role of interim president may be an expedient way to solve the short-term leadership challenge. But there are risks associated with appointing a trustee to serve as the interim president, including a lack of higher education management experience and a potential conflict of interest if governance issues arise.

7. Empower the interim president. The interim president inevitably will be called upon to address difficult issues, some of which are residual. Boards need to give interim presidents the authority to act in the best interests of the institution. Addressing these issues during the transition period will improve the onboarding process for the replacement president.

8. Know thyself. Recognize that the actions or inactions of the board contributed to the successes and failures of the prior presidency. Taking stock of the board’s strengths and weaknesses will improve governance overall and make the presidency more attractive to candidates who recognize the value of a high-functioning governing board.

Setting the Stage for Success

The interim presidency represents a critical juncture in the life of an institution.

Poised between outgoing and incoming leadership, between the past and the future, colleges and universities in the midst of presidential turnover are at a crossroads and the choices made by the board of trustees during this transition period may well have lasting implications. Governing boards, senior leadership teams, faculty, staff, students, and donors all have a vested interest in how the institution manages the interim period. If managed well, the leadership transition period can be used to strengthen an institution and, in so doing, make the college or university more attractive to potential presidential candidates. As importantly, issues addressed during the interim period clear the way for the new president to be more future-focused. The bottom line is that boards can use interim presidencies to address strategic priorities and position the institution for future success. Given the many challenges facing colleges and universities today, institutions can ill afford to squander this opportunity.

Kristin R. Tichenor, EdD, is the senior vice president of enrollment and institutional strategy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts

Endnotes

1. Michael S. Harris and Molly Ellis, “Exploring Involuntary Presidential Turnover in American Higher Education,” The Journal of Higher Education (2018) 89(3): 294–317.
2. Jonathan Gagliardi, Lorelle Espinosa, Jonathan Turk, and Morgan Taylor, American College President Study (Washington,
D. C.: The American Council on Education, 2017).
3. Harris and Ellis, 2018.
4. Kristin R. Tichenor, No Leadership Lull: Stakeholder Perspectives on the Interim Presidency (EdD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2019), 123.
5. Ibid.
6. Gagliardi, Espinosa, Turk, and Taylor, 2017.

TAKEAWAYS

  • How governing boards handle presidential transitions, especially those that involve the abrupt or involuntary departure of the chief executive officer, can have lasting implications for the college or university with residual impacts on student enrollment, philanthropic giving and institutional reputation.
  • Interim presidencies are a high risk/high gain proposition for institutions. If managed well, the interim presidency period can be used to identify and address issues left unresolved by the prior presidency, ensuring that a new president can focus on the future and not the past.
  • Given the dynamic nature of college campuses today and the volatility of the higher education industry, interim presidents need to be more than placeholders. Boards need to find a highly qualified candidate for the interim role and then empower that individual to lead the organization through the transition period.
  • Best case scenarios show that governing boards can use the interim presidency to strategic advantage by addressing institutional deficits, identifying future areas of growth and opportunity, and setting the stage for the successful on-boarding of a future president.