Colleges and universities throughout the U.S. are more frequently creating interim positions across all departments and aspects of higher education. Once reserved as a short-term opportunity to cover a position while a college or university took the time to conduct a search to fill a position, interim is now used in a more extended, long-term way. This shift in usage is a disservice not only to the people who fill such roles, but also to students, the institutions, and the communities that colleges and universities were designed to serve and positively impact.
Some of these interim roles were established before the pandemic to cover a role until the environment was more stable. Most recently, and thanks to the Great Resignation, interim roles have been extended because of failed searches to fill permanent roles, extending interim positions well beyond the original intentions and into multiple years.
Often, a junior member of a team in an assistant or associate role will step up to serve in the interim, juggling both positions, sometimes for the same pay or fa slight pay increase. These interim positions are also being created at the President and Chancellor levels. For a member who is offered an interim position, this role may be viewed as an opportunity they can’t pass on if they wish to move up the career ladder. For others, it is a way to keep the department or institution moving forward although they do not wish to assume the permanent role.
For the college or university, the role is a way to maintain the department or institution and continue to offer the services often at a reduced employee expense, funding one position instead of two. Juggling these roles leads to burnout, a sense of not being good enough, and a perceived disappointment in a job not very well done. Across the nation, stories of challenges and frustrations with interim roles are prevalent.
Colleges and universities are at a point where it is time to stop using interim roles for extended periods. Such positions are viewed by others as having limited decision-making authority or power. Even in cases where the institution bestows full authority; others may be unaware of this decision and perceive the title of interim as temporary and possessing limited authority to lead the college or university. This can hinder an institution, particularly by impacting student success and limiting other opportunities to elevate and advance the unit, the college or university, or the system.
Further, institutions need to do the hard work of deciding the best way to fill, adjust or eliminate a position and in this current environment that means taking the time to evaluate the department and determine what staffing is needed to accomplish the goals of the unit and ensure a successful path forward.
Lead with Organizational Effectiveness
To address, retirements, resignations, and other departures from positions, colleges and universities, starting with boards and executive leadership need to clearly establish and adapt the strategic plan to ensure there is necessary alignment. Once a direction is confirmed, the next step is to review the vacated position and determine the best approach for elevating organizational effectiveness. Some questions to consider when reviewing a position may include the following:
- What is working well with this position?
- Are there tasks or responsibilities that should be added or removed from this position?
- How should this position be adjusted to maximize success?
- What functions or activities need to stop?
- What barriers create challenges for the position?
- Is the position needed?
- Should the position be filled from within to continue and build on the current unit and or institutional direction along with preserving the institutional knowledge?
- Does the position need a fresh, outside perspective to move the unit and the institution forward?
- Are there external or internal gaps or barriers that need to be addressed?
- Are there opportunities to restructure in a way that creates a clearer path for student success?
- Would it be helpful to collaborate with an outside entity to conduct an organization review?
These are just a few of the questions that may be useful in supporting the decisions that need to be made.
Faced with a vacancy and need to cover it with an interim role? Consider this…
If you do need to designate an interim, take the time to outline and consider some of the following priorities:
- Make sure the person filling the role is clear on the expectations for the interim role especially if the original position is combined with the interim position.
- Determine whether or not the person holding the interim position will be eligible or not allowed to apply for the position.
- Review the policy of the college or university or the department about compensating someone who serves in an interim role. Some institutions require a set percentage of compensation for an interim role.
- Set a clear expectations for the timeline such as 3 months with an option to continue with agreed upon 3-month periods.
- Establish regular meetings and follow-up for support.
- Take time to listen and allow for the space to deliberately move forward.
Offered an interim role? Consider this…
What if you are presented with the opportunity to assume an interim role? Here are a few strategies worth considering:
- Seek to understand the expectations.
- Negotiate what works best for you. Not just compensation, but also support, coaching, training, or other needed resources.
- Set boundaries. Be clear on what you will or will not do in the position.
- Request additional compensation especially if you are responsible for two positions.
- Before accepting the position, determine whether you are applying for the permanent position or only filling the role.
- Outline and share what you wish to accomplish while you are serving in the interim role.
- Offer to assist with developing a plan to realign the unit to evaluate opportunities that may be accommodated given a vacancy.
While many strategies exist for handling interim roles, finding the one that works best for your college or university is critical to quickly moving forward. Also, consider using the term “acting” if the person will be filling the role for a limited period of time and not applying for the permanent position.
MGT has experience at all levels in higher education, working with colleges and universities to serve as an objective third party in leading organizational reviews and providing feedback that is actionable and designed to elevate student success. Our team has served in different roles on campuses: we have led projects all over the country to explore organizational structures, share exceptional frameworks and ensure positions are well-established based on the needs of the organization to lead the college or university.