Interim Administrative Appointments in Higher Education: Considerations for Potential Applicants
In a recent article, we delineated several institutional motivations for and benefits of interim administrative appointments. Initially, the appointing administrator elects to immediately launch a full search or to make an internal (or even external) interim appointment. Relevant considerations might include the costs of a search, including adding a new salary line and a recruitment package, the availability of competent internal candidates who can do the job, and the “operational condition and environment” of the unit (collegial and productive vs. problematic and unpleasant) to be led.
In this article, the interim role will be examined from the vantage point of the individual faculty members who might seek or accept such a position, likely within their current institutional structure. Among the topics are the candidate’s preparation for the role, the “fit” with the candidate’s long-term career goals, the potential for strengthening the candidate’s administrative skills and/or gaining new ones, the risk-benefit analysis of the particular position vs. remaining in the current position, the potential for gaining the position without the interim tag, and prospects and considerations for being competitive in similar, permanent positions outside of the current institution.
From these topics, one should get the impression that much of the conversation will be focused on those who regard interim positions as potential career steps to advance within administrative roles. While an upward administrative trajectory is an important motivation, there are also many of our colleagues who seek or agree to take interim posts out of a spirit of volunteerism. In some cases, individuals may have already “climbed the ladder” but choose to return to administrative service to help the institution when in need. In other cases, candidates with little or no prior administrative experience are motivated to seek an interim post by a number of factors including curiosity about administrative function, a desire for new learning experiences, or a strong sense of citizenship. Under the right circumstances, (good position fit and a successful, enjoyable stint as interim) this latter group could switch to an administrative career track.
Questions that a potential applicant for an interim position might ask:
Am I prepared and ready for an administrative role?
Being prepared means that the individual has accumulated the appropriate experiences and skills to assume a position that might arise. Having the appropriate preparation can be determined by the individual taking an honest look at his/her personal inventory (people skills, academic program development, research, budget and finance, technology, etc.) and matching that to the position expectations. If the percent match is low for an interim position, it might signal the need for additional experiences and skill that would translate into personal comfort or confidence in applying in the future. Moving ahead without requisite preparation could lead to a lackluster performance or low enthusiasm, thus dampening interest in future career options. Assessing the performance expectation level would be critical in applying for a position and must be clear to the candidate. For occasional positions, however, the expectations are based on acquirable skills and less on experience, thus making the preparedness determination less clear.
In cases where individuals hold administration as a career objective, there is a discernable pattern of behavior that leads naturally to the accumulation of experiences that, if successfully negotiated, gives them the insight, profile, and skills for such positions. These are the individuals one sees in many places and capacities around campus. Good candidates are those who have a history by membership (or leadership roles) on important campus committees, who have gained experience in faculty governance, who have served on committees in other units (e.g. search or review committees), and who have visibility in both professional and social campus events. Good candidates are those who participate in networks of faculty and administrators across campus and are aware of campus cultures and operation. This broad preparation places these potential candidates in advantageous positions from which to apply for a variety of interim administrative openings that may arise.
Readiness here refers to whether this is the right to time to apply for an administrative position. Is there a leave planned or is there a major state-wide project toward which a commitment has been made that would preclude giving full attention to the position? Are there some personal issues that could be problematic? The pending birth of a child or a serious and chronic illness of a close family member may be distracting enough to make the audition as an administrator less than spectacular. Thus, timing can be a factor especially where interim positions can become available without warning.
Is the interim position a good fit?
Is it a match for the long-term career goals of the candidate or does it not matter? While there are well-defined, traditional career paths for some administrative positions (e.g. the chair-dean-provost-vice-president-chancellor/president sequence), there are intermediate steps along the way (associate chair, associate dean, director, division head) as well as other routes to gain critical experience or insight in higher administration. There are also other positions in administration that may be attractive to some individuals. For example, positions in research, information technology, engagement, and finance are great landing places for academics who have the specific expertise and interest. However, the lack of a disciplinary expertise should not exclude consideration; other past experiences may be regarded as adequate substitutes.
Does the interim position offer developmental potential?
How does the interim role expand your personal inventory skill set and lead to even better future options? The objective listing of skills and experiences will reveal strengths as well as areas that require intentional improvement. Will the interim position present opportunities to grow and refine areas that are already strong, to improve elements that are weak, and/or to develop totally new skills? For example, someone from a business school, who aspires to the position of provost, may have a narrow, limited perspective on scholarship in the arts or sciences. Using disciplinary strengths related to money matters this person could be selected to be the interim associate director of grants and contracts. In such a role, this individual will have the opportunity to learn about the cultures of campus schools related to research and how it is done, valued, and funded. At the same time, the experience of working with extensive, complicated federal grant budgets would shape and enhance already existing fiscal expertise.
What is the risk-benefit ratio of taking the position?
This is a critical question for those on an upward administrative trajectory. Potential applicants should check on the history of the unit and its prior leadership. If it has been problematic in areas such as productivity or reduced longevity of leadership, extra caution is in order. In cases where personalities seem to be the root cause, the would-be appointment might want to investigate further to learn whether the issue emanates from the faculty and/or staff or from a difficult or meddling boss. If the decision is to go ahead in the face of a negative unit history, and some of our higher education colleagues are up for any challenge, then a formidable plan to deal with the issues revealed should be put in place by day one. Failure to lead the unit to a better place is not an option and could, at the least, lead to a delay in achieving overall career goals. Keep in mind, though, a tough assignment might be solvable by an interim person with the right credentials and who, as a non-threat, may be able to transform the problem unit.
If the unit seeking an interim is functioning in a satisfactory manner, the candidate and appointing administrator must decide whether to move ahead with a vigorous improvement plan or just maintain reasonable operation until the position is filled with a permanent replacement. Our recommendation is to institute improvements where needed. This increases the risk of failure but demonstrates initiative and allows for the expression personal creativity. If the ultimate goal is to hold a certain position, why not start walking-the-walk as an interim?
How likely is it that an interim would be offered the position on a permanent basis?
This is another question that can be addressed, to some degree, by reviewing institutional history. Does the institution routinely promote from within or does in resort automatically to open, external searches? If the latter, how frequently has an internal candidate won the competition with external candidates? Are there environmental factors that might affect the likelihood of the interim being chosen? For example, institutions under fiscal duress may opt for the internal candidate, who has performed well as an interim, rather than create a new (and expensive!) salary line with all the start-up expectations that would exist if an external candidate is selected. On the other hand, if the interim has not been able to correct all of the flaws of a chronically problematic unit, a seasoned, external candidate may be seen to have a better opportunity to change unit culture.
Would assuming the interim position strengthen the chances of landing a similar, permanent position elsewhere?
Taking on an interim role with good outcomes would ordinarily be a plus in this regard. The exception can be in cases where the interim was an unsuccessful candidate for the permanent position at the home institution. The reason for this result should be addressed in the letters of application and should be reiterated in some of the letters of recommendation submitted on behalf of the interim. It would also be a wise move on the part of the interim to keep detailed records of all major decisions made, issues resolved, partnerships formed, etc., including their outcomes, the reasons for approaches used, and aspects that might have been done differently as questions like these frequently arise during the interview process. Remember the culture of campus experience also serves as a source of recommendations. Having a breadth of strong recommendations makes it more likely that greater attention will go to the interim’s application. Finally, an important strategy for getting an external invitation is one that calls attention to the application. An effective approach to do this is to tailor accomplishments, especially those completed in the role of interim, to the position description in the ad. Every application should be carefully shaped to the position sought.
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.
N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is associate dean for planning & finance, professor and former chair of biology at IUPUI.