Thursday, January 05, 2006

Interim Ad Nauseum

A veteran of administration writes:

The institution at which I teach (and at which I deaned for two years)
has, for years, had what seems to me to be an extraordinarily large
number of upper (dean and above) administrators holding interim
appointments. Right now, the chief academic officer, the head of
student services, the head of external relations (including
fundraising), the dean of the school of business, and the dean of the
school of public administration are all interim. We have
one--one--person holding a permanent appointment at the VP level (admin
& fiscal, who's also acting VP for IT. We do have 4 (out of 6) permanent
deans. These proportions have been roughly constant for the past 5
years. (We're on our ninth year of interims in academic affairs.)

My question is whether this is normal, or if we're just lucky? It seems
to me that the primary consequence is a bunch of administrators with
reduced power and with little incentive to make tough decisions--or
support for making tough decisions.


From what I’ve seen, no, that’s not normal. In fact, that’s pretty weird.

Normally, I would assume that these are signs of crisis. Either a really severe fiscal crisis (since interim people actually make great hatchet men), or a really severe political crisis (i.e. the leadership is buffeted from many sides, and can’t commit to one direction).

In a fiscal crisis, interim appointments can make sense on a couple of levels. If you bring in someone from the outside, preferably someone towards the end of a career, you can do so with the understanding that the interim person will be the Bad Guy. Sometimes you need a Bad Guy to make the necessary changes – closing academic divisions, making drastic resource shifts, etc. Then, when the changes have been made and the Bad Guy thoroughly reviled, bring in a permanent person to be the Good Guy. The Good Guy reaps the goodwill from both stopping the cuts and not being the Bad Guy. K-12 districts have done this for years with superintendents.

Alternately, sometimes someone internal will get talked into serving in a higher, interim role, while the college decides whether or not to keep that role. If it decides to keep the role, then the interim serves until a permanent person is found. If it decides to eliminate the role, the interim simply returns from whence she came. (I’ve seen both.) If the college doesn’t want to commit yet to keeping a position, it probably won’t want to go to the trouble of a national search to fill it, so the internal interim becomes very attractive.

(Along those lines, there’s a great article waiting to be written about the perils of appointing to ‘interim’ roles internal people who intend to apply for the permanent role. It can be done, but it puts both the institution and the candidate in very awkward positions. If the interim is either terrible or wonderful, and the outcome a foregone conclusion, it isn’t so bad, except to the other external candidates who put time and effort into a Potemkin search. If the interim is good-but-not-great, things can get very ugly. The faculty variation on that is the good-but-not-great loyal adjunct who applies for a t-t line.)

Since this has been going on for five years, I assume that it isn’t a response to a crisis.

It may be a response to a political dilemma. One community college in my state (not my college, thankfully) is shared between two bordering counties, and the two counties have very different visions of what they want. (Interestingly, both counties are controlled by the same political party.) As a result, the college changes direction frequently, in response to whomever is angrier at the time. It blows through Presidents fairly quickly, since any given President can change direction only so many times before his credibility (and/or motivation) is simply shot. What looks like a failure of internal leadership is really a consequence of a larger political battle.

Alternately, if you have stability at the Presidential level and instability underneath, I would assume the problem is with the President. S/he may be micromanaging, or domineering, or really annoying, or simply floundering. If that’s the case, good people either won’t come (if the flaws are obvious) or won’t stay (if they take a while to surface). At that point, if the Board of Trustees values stability, it will find a new President.

If you have instability at the Presidential level, instability below is to be expected.

There are other possibilities, of course: a mismatch between salaries and the cost of living in that area, or a fuzzy and rapidly-changing institutional mission, or strongly entrenched and unmanageable unions (rendering the administrators figureheads), or just dumb luck. (I’d buy the dumb luck explanation for a year or two, but probably not for five.) It may be like the French government, in which the ever-changing elected officials (deans and up) are largely irrelevant, and the equivalent of the civil service (the faculty) runs the country; if that’s the case, I wouldn’t want to manage there.

My general view on these things is that interims should be used sparingly. Better to have people stick around long enough to get the lay of the land, and to be held to account for their decisions. If upper administration has a sort of attention-deficit disorder, the institution as a whole will suffer.

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at ccdean (at) myway (dot) com.