By keeping an institution moving forward, retired executives can assist colleges and universities until a permanent replacement is hired.
Dr. Frank Pogue recalls with gratitude, combined with some amazement, the grand send-off he and his wife received from the Chicago State University community when his yearlong interim presidency ended in July. He equates the fond farewell festivities with those at Edinboro University where he served as president for 11 years.
“Even today, it’s not unusual to hear from faculty, staff and students two or three times a day,” says Pogue, who lives in Delaware. “Not to complain, but just to say hello.”
And although Pogue says he had a wonderful time at Chicago State, he also acknowledges that it was a year filled with tension. The university was still reeling from the resignation of former president Dr. Elnora Daniel, who stepped down following allegations of mismanagement and questionable spending. Furthermore, the Presidential Search Advisory Committee accused the board of trustees of shutting them out of the search process for Daniel’s replacement.
The Registry for College and University Presidents places former executives in interim presidential and other senior-level posts and is familiar with the challenges interim executives and institutions encounter in times of leadership transitions. However, the one big advantage interims bring to institutions, says Registry Vice President Kevin J. Matthews, is the experience of having done the job.
“Our people are able to parachute in and hit the ground running,” he says. “They don’t have to learn the position. They just have to learn the institution.”
Started in 1992 by former university presidents Drs. Thomas Langevin and Allen Koenig to place former presidents exclusively in interim positions, the Registry expanded in 2002 with the establishment of a new division for senior administrators that now accounts for 60 percent of its business. It has contracts with more than 250 former college and university presidents and senior administrators in almost every state, all of whom have been selected for membership based upon nominations and an extensive evaluation process. Interim assignments can range from three months to three years. This year, the Registry has placed six leaders at historically Black and other minority-serving colleges and universities.
The Registry’s model precludes its members from participating in the search for the permanent replacement.
“What that does is offer the school the ability to do a clean search without our people coming in and becoming part of that process,” says Matthews.
Rather, interims often help the institution create a more appealing environment for the permanent hire by providing stability during a transition, says Matthews.
Before they are offered an interim assignment, most executives will meet with board members or other university officials but typically do not go through a formal interview process.
“We don’t discourage it in a negative way, but because it’s not a permanent position, what we want to do is to make sure that an interim can come in there and not have to make political alliances,” says Matthews. “An interim needs to be able to come in and in some ways act like a consultant and tell truth to power.”
That’s why Dr. George Ross, president of historically Black Alcorn State University in Mississippi, decided to go with an external interim provost.
“I wanted them (interims) to come in, help me make a fair assessment, move Alcorn forward, and frankly help make some of those difficult decisions and not have any political or career ties to the university,” says Ross. “Decisions could be made objectively without any fear of how this might affect someone’s candidacy or, frankly, someone’s relationships and friendships with existing people here.”
The Two ‘T’s’
The Registry stresses to its members that there is more than one paradigm for a successful interim placement â€” transitional and transformational. The more traditional model is the transitional, in which interims essentially act as a placeholder until a permanent person is hired. However, says Matthews, more and more, transformational leadership is required.
Pogue says he doesn’t know how to be just transitional.
“I am a transformative-type person,” he says. “I said that to the people in Chicago as well, that I was not going to sit there and try to hold things together because basically it would be impossible to sit in a president’s chair without being motivated to keep the university moving forward. You can’t move an organization forward, particularly dealing with faculty, unless you’re going to try to transform the university.”
Dr. Richard Green, who works under Ross as interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Alcorn State, has served in several interim capacities. He echoes Pogue.
“I wanted to be in situations in which the institution needed transformational change,” he says. “(It) needed change in direction or change in course.”
Whether traditional or transformational, interim positions can be challenging. The short-term nature of the position creates a unique dynamic in terms of how interims approach their work and in some cases how existing employees interact with them.
“You are in an unusual position in that you know you’re not going to stay. So you have to be respectful of the institution’s priorities and its culture,” says Dr. Irene Moszer, who served as interim chief financial officer at a Pennsylvania university. “Yet, depending upon the nature of your assignment, you may have to step away from that institution’s processes and ways of handling financial management issues because they may be in trouble.”
Preparing an institution for new leadership is one of the most important things a college or university can do, says Green.
And it’s best for interims to do some preparation as well even if they have performed the job functions before.
“Initially, I want to assess the situation before I try to address the expectations that the president or the board has provided me. I have no time to be new,” says Green.
“When I came to Alcorn, I tried to meet all the key faculty and administrators and student leaders in my first few weeks. I met with department chairs and deans, (and) members of faculty senate to get a full understanding of the culture of the institution (and) the aspirations of the institution.”
Pogue, who hadn’t visited Chicago State before accepting his interim assignment, says when he walked on campus he was “by far the newest guy on the block.”
“I knew nobody. There was very little that could prepare me for that setting,” says Pogue. “But people on that campus were looking for someone they could trust, someone they felt comfortable with and someone who could lead. So it wasn’t that difficult to get people to come together because they wanted to.”
“I focused on keeping that institution moving forward, on making myself available to meet on a regular basis with faculty, staff and students. I established relationships with community organizations, elected officials, and tried to create a civil community, a trusting community. One of my goals had to do with preparing the campus for new presidential leadership. That really is where I focused my attention, making sure that people were actually ready to receive a leader,” Pogue says.
There are personal considerations as well. If an assignment requires temporarily moving out of state, will a spouse or partner come along?
Green says his wife, who’s retired, spends considerable time with him on assignments. “That’s been very helpful,” he says, “if you need support outside of the institution when you’re dealing with perhaps some very difficult situations.”
The Registry held its annual seminar in October in St. Louis, where attendees participated in panel discussions on such topics as transformational and transitional leadership and the role of interims during the search process. Executives also had the opportunity to attend an orientation session on how to get a Registry job.
Green, Moszer and Pogue all say that after acquiring decades of experience in higher education, serving as an interim is a great opportunity and they look forward to taking on more assignments. However, Moszer and Pogue admit they miss working in the academy full time.
“When you hold down a full-time position, you realize that what you’re doing will probably have longer-term input, because you’re going to be there to deal with these things. Being a consultant, you bring in the processes, you train people, and then you leave,” says Moszer.
Pogue, who started looking into the Registry while he was preparing for retirement, says he misses the students. “You miss that environment where you welcome young people to the campus and watch them grow into something spectacular.
I also miss working with faculty and the day-to-day challenges. But it’s a 24-hour-a-day job.” Green enjoys the flexibility interim assignments provide. When he’s back in his home base of Tucson, Ariz., Green, a chemist, teaches introductory and advanced chemistry courses at the local university and community college system.
Green, whose last full-time position was as executive vice president for academic affairs and dean of graduate studies at Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, says interim opportunities benefit both former executives and the institutions.
“Especially in this economic climate,” says Green, “institutions should take their time in finding permanent replacements.” D