Ηiring an interim president gives a seminary several opportunities: To catch its breath, march in place, change course, put some distance between the past and future, or even step up the pace and surge forward. But which approach should the board focus on? And how can the board set up an interim leader for success?

To learn more about what boards should consider when hiring and managing an interim leader, In Trust talked to William Crothers, who has served as an interim executive five times. From 1981 to 2002, Crothers was the ninth president of Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester, New York. His current stint is as the interim president of Ashland Theological Seminary in Ohio.  

Q: When does it make sense for a school to hire an interim CEO?

A: There are at least three reasons to consider an interim. First, if a president retires or resigns late in the season, and the board doesn’t have time to do a search before the school year starts. Second, if the board is replacing a long-serving, popular president and wants to avoid a comparison between the former CEO and newly hired president. Third, if the institution needs to address some critical issues — finances, enrollment, personnel, etc. — that could derail a new president. An interim can put things in good order so the new president has a better shot at success.

William Crothers is interim president of Ashland Theological Seminary.

Credit: Rilla Crothers

Q: What’s the difference between an interim and an acting president? Is one a better choice than the other?

A: The terms often are used interchangeably, but an interim president typically comes from the outside, whereas an acting president comes from within. As to which is preferable, it depends on the role the board hopes to fill. If the institution is healthy, and the board is looking for someone to maintain the status quo while they conduct a search for the next CEO, an insider who knows the campus might be the right choice. If they want to change course or address some difficult issues, it’s wise to look outside the institution. An insider, such as a faculty member, may have difficulty returning to the classroom if the interim period involves laying off colleagues or cutting programs. 

Q: Should a member of the board ever step in as interim president?

A: I’m not sure that’s a good idea, especially if the trustee plans to return to the board after serving as interim president. The roles are totally different, and when the new permanent president arrives, that new leader may not feel comfortable interacting with a trustee who previously sat in the chief executive’s chair. The potential conflict between the two can be very real.

Q:  If the board decides to look outside the institution, how do they find an interim?

Α: Recently retired successful presidents might make good interims. Our industry is changing rapidly, so I would caution against candidates who have been retired for several years. Obviously the board would need to check candidates’ records to know if they have the skill set to meet the specific needs of the institution. The Association of Governing Boards (AGB) and the In Trust Center are great resources. A board can even hire AGB to conduct the search.  

Q:  In addition to the right skills, what should an interim bring to a new assignment?

Α: The interim has got to be driven by mission. You don’t step into these situations if you don’t believe deeply in the work that’s going on. I see what I’m doing at Ashland Theological Seminary as Kingdom work; it’s much like being called to a pastorate. That’s what motivates me. 

Q: What kind of person should the board not look for? 

Α: You certainly don’t want to consider candidates simply because they have a national reputation. A mismatch between the skill set of the individual and the needs of the institution can be devastating. If you’ve got an institution facing serious financial issues, an academic might not be the right person. On the other hand, bringing in somebody from the corporate world to serve as president of a seminary could be a mistake if the person doesn’t understand higher education. We are a very different business, and understanding the differences is important if the board hopes to create meaningful change.  

Q: Should the interim agree not to be a candidate for the permanent role of CEO?

Α: A candidate who is in contention for a permanent appointment might handle the job differently. A true interim doesn’t have to be liked, because they’re leaving anyway. They’re not going to have a long-term relationship with anyone at the institution; they simply have to do what’s right to fulfill their brief role. For that reason, I think the board should state unequivocally that the interim president is not auditioning for the job but is addressing specific tasks to help prepare the campus for its next chief executive.  

Q: How does a board convey its expectations or outline these “specific tasks” to the interim president?

Α: Communication is really important. Board members need to articulate their expectations in writing. The document should affirm that the interim has full presidential authority and, with the approval of the executive committee, can terminate or replace senior staff. Sometimes a board will list the issues they feel are critical and invite the interim to identify and discuss additional issues as they come up. An interim who comes from outside an affiliated denomination needs to agree to respect the theological perspective of that denomination. All these details should be worked out during face-to-face conversations either with the entire board or with the executive committee. After that, the interim and the board chair — or the executive committee — should talk every week or two. Personally, I often issue a monthly newsletter to board members that explains what has been accomplished.

Q: Should there be some kind of exit clause in case the relationship doesn’t work out?

Α: Yes. I always include a 30-day notice for termination in the agreement. If a board hires me as an interim and decides it was a mistake, I want them to be able to move me out. If I conclude that I made a mistake in assuming the position, I want to be able to get out of the agreement, even if it was an annual contract. I don’t think a seminary should have to pay a full year’s salary if either party feels the relationship was a mistake.

Q: How long should an interim president serve, and what is the school’s obligation besides salary?

Α: I recommend an interim presidency shouldn’t last longer than a year. Institutions need to be thinking long term, and they can lose momentum if the interim period goes on indefinitely. As for the school’s obligation, most institutions have either a home or an apartment that the interim’s family can occupy for the short term. By the way, the interim’s spouse’s enthusiastic involvement in the assignment is essential. 

Q: Should the interim be consulted as part of the search for a permanent president?

Α: It depends on the institution and who is serving as an interim. In some cases when I was an interim, the search committee asked me to sit in — not as a voting member but as a consultant. However, this might have been due more to my experience with working with presidential searches rather than my vantage point as the interim leader. 

Q: Should a candidate for the permanent position talk to the interim during the search process?  

Α: Generally candidates will want to talk to the interim before they decide whether to accept an offer. They want to know what’s going on in the life of the institution, what the major issues are, how well the board and faculty get along. The best candidates probe deeply to get true answers. There should be no surprises for the person who takes the job.

Q: Can someone serve as an interim president on a less-than-full-time basis?

Α: A successful interim has to be full time in order to understand the issues, quickly size up the culture of the institution, and work within that culture to make the changes that are necessary. This supports the ability to mediate conflict among faculty members, administrators, and staff.

Q: What obligation does an interim president have in terms of working with the development staff, attending special events, meeting students, and preaching at sponsoring churches?

Α: It’s difficult for an interim to have a major impact on development because donors are unlikely to bond with someone whose affiliation with the institution is short term. That said, relationships are important, and the interim president can offer assurance that the school is in good hands during the transition period. Trustees can step up their involvement and visibility since they are part of the long-term leadership of the school. Attending events such as receptions, church conferences, and campus gatherings is important in terms of giving a sense of optimism for the future. They also help the interim tune into the culture of the campus. 

Q: Let’s fast forward. A year has passed and the new president has been selected. What is the best way to end the interim’s involvement with the school? Is commencement the likely place to pass the gavel? 

Α: If the board brings in a new president at the end of the academic year, commencement might be an appropriate and very public time to make the transition of leadership. Symbolically, it’s a fresh beginning for the graduates and for the institution.

Q: You’ve been involved in higher education leadership for many years. What major changes have you witnessed, especially as you’ve fulfilled the interim role at several institutions? 

Α: The whole industry has changed radically. It’s more difficult to be a college, university, or seminary president today than it was in 1981 when I started.  We’ve seen wholesale changes in demographics, accountability expectations, and government interference. Technology is a major factor. When I served as president at Roberts, the cell phone first came out. It was the size of a Kleenex box! I remember carrying one around in my briefcase so I could keep in touch with the institution when I traveled off campus. We didn’t have computers in our offices; my administrative assistant had what we called a “smart” typewriter with a little screen that could store a few words. Life has changed a lot. Society has changed a lot. The whole religious landscape has changed dramatically.

Q: In spite of all the change, you haven’t experienced burnout. What makes the work fulfilling after so long? 

Α: I believe in what we’re doing. Just think about what our society would be if we didn’t have seminaries. We’re preparing people who are going to lead the spiritual formation of our country. What could be more important than that? Retirement isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Even if we’re past retirement age, we all have something to contribute. We all are capable of doing some form of ministry, and we need to answer the call.  


A network of interim leaders

The Registry is a resource for institutions of higher education, including seminaries, that are seeking interim presidents or other interim senior administrators, including vice presidents of finance, advancement, academic affairs, enrollment management, and student services. Founded in 1992 as The Registry for College and University Presidents, its roster includes about 700 names of potentially available executives, including 200 retired college and university presidents, who are available for service across the United States and Canada.

William C. Nelsen is a member of The Registry who has served as academic dean at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and president of Augustana University in South Dakota. A Lutheran minister, Nelsen got a call two years ago from The Registry, asking if he’d consider being a candidate for the interim leadership of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

William Nelsen was hired as interim president with a specific goal: to close the Massachusetts campus of Episcopal Divinity School and to find a suitable institution to partner with. 

Courtesy Episcopal Divinity School 

Nelsen had already been vetted — The Registry screens its roster of potential leaders by interviewing former board members and colleagues. Members of The Registry also gather each year at a conference to share what they’ve learned in their various interim positions. So when the EDS board chair contacted The Registry, the chair knew that he didn’t have to worry about reference checks or being connected with someone who was out of touch with current issues. 

At first, Nelsen felt that he couldn’t be considered for the EDS position because he was directing a major program for his local Lutheran synod. But as the seminary and Registry leadership kept refining the position description and reviewing potential candidates, Nelsen’s name, along with several others, kept floating to the top. With support from his bishop, Nelsen agreed to throw his hat in the ring.

Eventually four members of The Registry were selected to go to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for two days of intensive interviewing. The decision about which candidate to hire was entirely the board’s. And then a contract with a carefully defined set of expectations was drawn up between the school and The Registry, followed by a separate agreement between The Registry and Nelsen himself. 

After two years, following the successful move of Episcopal Divinity School to New York City, through an innovative affiliation agreement with Union Theological Seminary, Nelsen’s tenure as interim president of EDS came to an end. He’s back home in Minnesota, but he’s crafted a report to share with fellow members of The Registry. Future interim leaders will be able to learn from what he’s done, just as he learned from others before him. 

A few resources for schools considering an interim leader 

Search organizations and firms

1. The Registry    

2. AGB Interim Search   

3. Design Group International   

Further reading

1. “The value of successful interim presidencies”    

2. “A mandate for more interim presidents”    

Publisher’s note: The In Trust Center’s Resource Consultants can work with you to identify resources specific to your school’s concerns and situation. Contact us at resources@intrust.org.

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