Why Colleges and Universities Are Hiring Interim Leaders

By Brian Krehbiel

Our firm has had a recent influx of requests from higher education institutions for interim leaders to fill critical open positions or to supplement the current leadership team. This trend is gaining momentum as colleges and universities must move ahead with key initiatives while the process of hiring a new, permanent leader plays out. The hiring process often takes longer than expected. With home mortgage rates rising, for instance, it becomes harder for institutions to hire permanent leaders who must relocate and face significantly larger monthly home payments.

A few other factors are driving institutions to hire interim leaders from outside their campuses. For one thing, the frequency and severity of problems institutions face today have escalated. If a presidential vacancy occurs, the risk is simply too great to reassign a senior administrator or temporary leader who has never occupied the chief executive’s chair. This applies to other key administrative roles as well. Across academia, what once were mild financial difficulties have been replaced by budgetary crises that threaten the ability of institutions to serve students and carry out their missions. The decline in enrollment continues and, according the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the current slide in young people heading to college is the steepest on record. At all institutions, fundraising has taken on a more significant role as a means of propping up key programs and implementing growth initiatives.

Scenarios such as these – happening concurrently with leadership vacancies at key positions in, for example, finance, enrollment, or advancement – often require a fresh perspective and proven expertise of an interim leader who has lived through similar challenges. External interim leaders can lend unique expertise and chart a different course for the future. Moreover, the traditional practice of asking a sitting administrator to fill a leadership void (a provost as interim president, for example) is losing its luster. Boards and institutional leaders realize that asking current cabinet members to take on interim roles taxes these executives’ bandwidth and lowers their productivity as they tackle two jobs at once.

In the past year, I’ve helped numerous institutions find interim expertise in situations in which their current leadership capacity and capabilities were strained. I expect the requests to continue. The following are ways that interim executives support today’s colleges and universities:

  • Maintain momentum for key strategic and operational imperatives. A recruitment for a new college president or other key cabinet member can take a year or more. Meanwhile, the institution needs to move forward even when faced with a leadership vacancy.Given a clear mandate from the board and leadership team, an experienced interim president, VP or other leader keeps critical projects and initiatives moving ahead until a permanent replacement can be found.
  • Access specific expertise. Higher education institutions increasingly face extraordinary challenges or opportunities outside the steady state skills of an existing team – a major technology implementation, a revamp of enrollment or student retention strategy, perhaps even a merger or acquisition. Given a clear purpose and objectives, an interim leader can leverage highly specific experience directly aligned to tackling those challenges or taking full advantage of those opportunities.
  • Mentor a new leader. Institutions frequently hire key leaders – even presidents and provosts – based largely on potential with the understanding they’ll need time to adapt and grow into their role. Interim leaders who have been there before (e.g., in the president’s office) can serve as mentors and coaches to newly hired campus leaders to streamline onboarding, establish priorities, build confidence, and help the permanent executive successfully transition into their new role.
  • Deploy a change agent to make tough decisions. With vast experience and thick skin developed over many years, interim leaders can be agents of change. They can make tough, necessary decisions without fear of repercussions, shielding the leadership team and permanent hire from the fallout of choices that inevitably will be unpopular with some constituents. Interim executives challenge the status quo and develop action steps needed to bring about change.

With higher education experiencing intermittent crises and frequent turnover among leadership teams, employing interim leaders from outside one’s institution becomes a savvy talent strategy. Interims can provide support and expertise to keep an institution running smoothly until a permanent hire can be made or until a crisis has been averted or successfully navigated.