The pros and cons of the interim administrator

by Bret Hauff / Beacon Staff • October 8, 2015

Update (Oct. 8, 4:10 p.m.)

Interim administration at Emerson nearly quadrupled from 2011-2013, but Vice President of Academic Affairs Michaele Whelan said this hasn’t stunted the college’s progress.

Since President M. Lee Pelton’s inauguration almost three years ago, Emerson has created 17 interim positions school-wide: five deans, five department chairs, six division directors, and one vice president, according to course catalogs. The college now employs four temporary deans and one interim vice president.  

“You usually don’t appoint an interim unless there is a specific situation,” Whelan said. “Something happens, and you have to replace someone immediately.”

Pelton said the plethora of interim deans, chairs, and directors was due to an array of coincidental circumstances, including retirements, leave due to medical emergencies, and decisions to return to faculty or leave the institution. Explicit and mandatory processes outlined in the faculty handbook also add to the necessity for these appointments, Whelan said.  

Whelan says these factors—aided by a lack of stable leadership in the school of communication—led to the many interim positions that have been appointed in the last three years. These appointments circumvent the sluggish methodological processes and create a flexible and accommodating environment for change, Whelan said.

Appointment of Deans

According to the faculty handbook, the appointment of deans requires Whelan, as vice president of academic affairs, to assemble a committee from the school affected. This board then conducts an institutional and, if necessary, a national search. The council is in constant communication with Whelan, suggesting “potential interviewees” who must be approved for an on-campus meeting.

If given clearance, the faculty of the respective school will conduct interviews and address the committee with recommendations. The board will make suggestions to the vice president of academic affairs, who proposes the appointee to the president. The president then advises the board of trustees for appointment.

This procedure can take up to a year, Whelan said, and the college is currently undergoing this process to replace Interim Dean of Students Sharon Duffy and Interim Dean of the School of Communication Phillip Glenn.

“A dean’s job is to provide academic leadership as well as good management and stewardship of the school,” Glenn said. “Those are things I would try to do whether my title were interim or not.”

Duffy, former associate dean of students, is filling the vacancy left by long-time Dean of Students Ronald Ludman. Duffy said her transitory position hinders her ability to reinvent policies to benefit students with focus on the long-term, a purview she said the department struggles with.

“I’m not putting a lot of pressure on myself in terms of what I can get done in a short period of time,” Duffy said. “It’s more what level of impact I can make in the daily course of my work.”

Interim Dean of Graduate Studies Jan Roberts-Breslin was appointed after the former abruptly retired, forcing a school-wide search to fill the position. Roberts-Breslin, like Duffy, is serving as a bridge from one head to another. She is in the second year of her three-year agreement.

“One good thing [interim] does, knowing that it’s a finite length of time, is if you’re going to really do anything, really have any list of accomplishments, you really need to get started,” Roberts-Breslin said.

Appointment of Chairs

The process for appointing department chairs is similar yet simpler than the process to appoint deans, Whelan said. Instead of designating a committee and conducting a search, these positions are typically self-nominated or recommended by the faculty from within the department. This procedure is a recent change—previously the college always sought new candidates from outside the institution.  

Each department appoints chairs as outlined in the faculty handbook. Some vote, others may come to a consensus through discussion or conduct formal interviews—it’s really up to the group, Whelan said.

Once a decision is made, the department recommends the candidate to the dean, who advises the vice president of academic affairs for appointment. Most interim chairs in the past three years were in the school of communication.

“[It] was going through some changes,” Whelan said, “so I didn’t want to lock anyone into that structure if they wanted to move to a different mode.”

This uncertainty has prolonged interim appointments, Whelan said. Donald Hurwitz, now a senior executive in-residence in the department of marketing communication, served as the interim chair for five years through two contract extensions.

Paul Niwa, who became chair of the journalism department this summer, was appointed interim chair of the department in 2012 after Ted Gup left in the spring to take a fellowship at Harvard University. It was made clear the department did not want him to be a “seat-warmer,” Niwa said, as there was no formal search for a new chair imminent.

“It’s a privilege to be able to serve,” Niwa said, “but it’s also put my own, personal aspirations on hold.”

Niwa said the interim title creates uncertainty, and “instability creates strain, but enables flexibility.”

Brooke Knight, who became chair of the department of visual and media arts in August 2014, was named interim when the former took a position outside the college late in the 2012-2013 academic year. Although he felt the number of interims at the college did not affect stability, Knight said the question of his longevity affected his role within the department.

“When you're an interim chair, and you know that you have a year, but not necessarily any more,” Knight said, “it makes it difficult to make long-range plans and to do anything really huge.”

In the Macro

This situation is not unique to Emerson. Roberts-Breslin said that at a conference this summer, there was a lot of talk of the vast number of interim administration at their respective institutions.

“In a conversations I heard a couple different people kind of joking about ‘Yeah, we call it interim-U,’ because there were so many people in interim positions,” Roberts-Breslin said. “I don’t think it’s anything unique just to Emerson.”

The University of Akron, in Ohio, has three interim deans, less than the number of interim deans here. James Madison University in 2013 had seven interim administrators, only one more than Emerson in the same year. The student bodies of both these institutions more than quadruple the college’s.

Although the number of interim positions at Emerson has been inflated, progress of the institution have not faltered, Whelan said. A list of accomplishments over the past two years that Whelan provided to the Beacon outlines a 13 percent increase in external funding, two new MFA degrees in the writing, literature, and publishing and visual and media arts departments, and new college-wide Business of Creative Enterprises (BCE) major.

“The interim title represents an official status,” Pelton said. “It does not represent that their performance, engagement or strategic planning efforts have been on an interim basis.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this article said that Ted Gup, former chair of the journalism department, left his position abruptly, but did not state why. Gup resigned his position to accept a fellowship at Harvard University.