The Interim Chief: Leadership In Retirement

An interview with Dr. Richard Hansen and Galen Hench

Editor’s Note: Dr. Richard “Rich” Hansen currently serves as the interim Provost at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is Rich’s fourth interim assignment through The Registry. He has previously served as the interim Chief Academic Officer for the University of Louisiana System, for the University of New Orleans, and for the Wentworth Institute of Technology. Prior to joining The Registry, Rich served as the Provost and Executive Vice President for Union Institute & University in Cincinnati, Ohio. He formally retired in February 2013. Galen sat down with Rich over lunch to discuss his experiences serving as an interim Chief Academic Officer.

Hench: Could you tell us a little about how you became aware of The Registry, and your mindset at the time when you decided to apply?

Hansen: Well, I flunked retirement! I was singularly unsuccessful at retirement. I knew people that had been in The Registry, and I respected the organization. I entered the application process as sort of a safety net because I was not ready to quit working when I left Union Institute. The opportunity to serve as an interim, as I understood it, would mean that I would have a lot of flexibility in terms of which assignments I would take. These assignments are short term—or at least intended to be short term.

Hench: Since the time that you joined The Registry, has the role of the Provost changed at all?

Hansen: I don’t think the role has changed a lot, or at least not in the way I approach it. I think the issues we deal with—such as building relationships with the faculty and developing an operating style that respects faculty governance—I don’t think that’s changed.

I think the difference is that the focus of each of these institutions is sometimes not as clear. At Union Institute, there was never any question about what the central mission of the institution was. Likewise, the focus of the students and faculty at Wentworth was primarily Architecture and Design, which is a clear niche. Here at Lesley, the mission is a bit less focused.

There was a similar challenge at the University of New Orleans, which is large public institution; there, the resources were spread across six or seven colleges. The challenge became making ourselves distinctive beyond just geography, and doing so in a way that was consistent with our mission. In each of these institutions, the margin for error is very narrow. You want to create an environment that limits risk, but that also allows you to try new things.

Hench: What mindset or skill set do you think is required to be successful as a Registry Interim?

Hansen: I think the skill set that I bring to these interim assignments is that I can develop strong relationships with the faculty and foster programs that respect their point of view. That has been consistent throughout my work with The Registry. In addition to that, you have to go into these interim assignments prepared to be that position from day one. I have found success by leveraging my experience and trying to go full-tilt into the job from the onset; I can’t allow myself a lot of learning time. You must be able to get a sense of the lay of the land and an understanding of the important issues, and then be able to work on them. Of course there’s always a learning period, but as I mentioned, there’s not a lot of difference between what the Provost does at many of these institutions.

Hench: What are some of the types of challenges that you have run into as interim Provost?

Hansen: At two of the four institutions I’ve been at, faculty morale and faculty governance were important issues that needed to be addressed. How do you respect the faculty and all that they have to plan in their institution, and how do you work with the faculty to help them to assume that responsibility? These are not always easy questions to answer. If you look at the daily life of a faculty member, and if you consider Maslow’s Triangle, it is apparent that many of these positions require you to pay close attention to the daily work life of the faculty.

It doesn’t work if I try to immediately lay out an academic vision for the future, and push the faculty too quickly into making decisions. I’ve found that I have to pay attention to the individual needs of the individual faculty members, and then build from that. It builds from the philosophy of servant leadership. I’ve tried in my own way to say to faculty that “these are your decisions, and you have a responsibility to your institution.” The faculty cannot lay all the decisions on me as the Provost. There is a role that they have to play, and we’re going to make better decisions if the faculty are more involved.

The other piece that’s been consistent across all of these assignments has been institutional assessment and institutional effectiveness, which I think is another skill set that I bring to the table. I was a peer evaluator for the Higher Learning Commission, and worked on the assessment of learning outcomes, program outcomes, and that whole institutional effectiveness area.

Hench: Is there a process that you’ve developed to identify immediate projects that you can work on to score early wins with the faculty or the President?

Hansen: There are often clear issues that surface during the campus visits. For example, in this assignment at Lesley, I quickly discerned some of the challenges related to faculty life and was able to move on those challenges almost immediately.

In general, I’ve learned to listen for a few things: I listen for faculty issues where I can be an advocate; I listen very carefully to the President and how he or she describes the issues that they perceive; and I also listen for clues on the administrative style of the President so that I can understand if I would be a good fit. Ultimately, if you are selected for the position, you must be prepared to adapt to different leadership styles; you have to learn to manage the fit issue.

Hench: For those readers who are not familiar with the process, once an interim is selected then the next step is to finalize the expectations document that defines the interim role. Is there an opportunity for you to influence the final expectations document?

Hansen: One thing that’s important to understand is that, considering every interim assignment I’ve had through The Registry, there has not been one where I am expected to simply keep the seat warm—that has never been the expectation. I wouldn’t like that kind of job, anyway.

I see the expectations document as it’s being drafted, of course. The Registry Principal who I am working with on the assignment shows it to me as it is finalized. In my current assignment at Lesley, I was more involved in developing the expectations document. I had a second meeting—a follow up meeting—with the President, because he had a very complex list of expectations. I worked with Dr. Jacquelyn Armitage and her contact at the institution to narrow down the expectations document to make it a little more reasonable.

Hench: Just to clarify a bit, do you find that the length of the expectations document is proportional to the length of the assignment?

Hansen: You would hope that the length of the expectations document is in some ways reflective of the length of the assignment. But I would say it’s more about the complexity of the job that needs to be done that is the most important. It helps, as is the case in this current assignment, when the President is clear from the beginning about what he or she wants accomplished. At Lesley, the President was very clear that he wanted a thorough review of all of the programs; that was a key expectation from the beginning.

This current assignment is almost the perfect situation for an interim. Lesley is an institution with a new President who has limited experience in higher education administration. He’s been here for a year, and he needed an interim provost to help him sort out what he’s got; in other words, help him understand what sort of skill level he needs in his new Provost. It really is a perfect situation for a Registry interim.

Hench: Would you say that you are helping to craft what the President is looking for in the permanent provost?

Hansen: Oh, yes, absolutely. That was also part of the expectations document. You have to be careful about that, because it still has to be the committee’s decision. I’m not on the search committee, but I’ve met with the consultants. The permanent search at Lesley is being led by Academic Search, Inc. That was not part of the Wentworth position, for example, and I was only involved marginally in the permanent search there.

Hench: Can you look back at your four interim assignments and pick out the singular hardest thing you’ve had to do?

Hansen: Probably the program reviews in general. It’s a really good thing for a Registry Interim to do, because you have to make some really tough decisions. You’re going to have to make some recommendations to potentially sunset certain programs.

Those are really complex relationships and difficult conversations to have with faculty. It requires the interim to build and maintain trust with the faculty. As an outside interim you have to learn how to work with data that you don’t have, and you have to create a set of criteria to do the evaluation and assessment.

Hench: Reflecting on your past assignments, where do you feel you’ve made the biggest difference?

Hansen: I think that it was probably the College where I was working with the faculty on rebuilding faculty governance systems and processes, and helping the faculty to take their rightful ownership of academic issues. In one case, the person I was reporting to was cautious about faculty governance and shared governance, and so to be able to work a balance between that President and the faculty in terms of shared governance was a big success. I felt very good about that.

Now, that’s not to say I totally solved the problem in that circumstance. It’s not over yet. I was able to highlight and identify the issue, which empowered the faculty. I think the faculty in that situation took the necessary steps to take their rightful place in the shared governance structure.

Hench: Does it make it easier knowing that, as an interim, there is a set end-date to your assignment?

Hansen: Absolutely. I mean, you can’t quit, right? I always know that I can call the Registry Principal to voice my concerns about any challenges I run into. Knowing that there’s a defined end-date absolutely makes a difference.

The nature of an interim assignment gives you a lot more flexibility to weather it out. In some cases, it allows you to be more aggressive—in a positive way—to try to push change. I mean, the faculty know that you’re in that situation, and so there is some understanding of the challenges you’ve been asked to navigate.

Hench: What would you say to someone late in their career who is thinking about pursuing interim opportunities through The Registry?

Hansen: I would do it! I would recommend it highly; I think it’s been a great opportunity. I would make the time to attend the Annual Seminar and get to know all the folks at The Registry and in the membership. If you attend the annual meeting you will meet a lot of people who feel that The Registry has made significant contributions to their careers and who are still wanting to learn, which is important.

These assignments have allowed me to meet a lot of new people. I’ve made several very good friends at the four institutions I’ve served; I would never have met them otherwise. I have gotten to know very different kinds of institutions as well as the people who are dedicating their lives to them. Each of the four institutions that I’ve been with are important, and they have important missions and they serve their students well.

So, it’s been a very positive experience for me. It’s always been very positive.

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