Looking Forward as an Interim to “I Don’t Know….”

Dr. Karen Whitney
The Registry



Over the span of a forty-year career, which has taken me from staffing the security desk of an all-women’s residence hall to leading the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, I have had a tremendous opportunity to serve the field of higher education. In a way, I drew a sense of comfort from my career knowing that each day would be filled with meetings, phone calls, and e-mails.

Since my retirement last fall, the drumming cadence that propelled my career forward has quieted. For the first time in years, my calendar is absent of appointments and must-do’s. On the one hand, the freedom of my schedule is somewhat disorienting. On the other, I sense that I am stepping into a curious space and feel motivated to explore the “I don’t know….”

Joining The Registry was the first step in this new phase of not knowing. I do not know what my journey with The Registry will be, and that’s okay. The opportunity to work with The Registry checks off several important expectations I have for myself in this period of not knowing:

  • The possibility of working in entirely new parts of the country.
  • The opportunity to work in unfamiliar sectors of higher education.
  • The chance to engage in creative and stimulating consulting and coaching projects.

My affiliation with The Registry also guides my second step in not knowing, which is to orient myself with other like-minded executives and senior administrators experiencing this new freedom in their lives. Last November, I was fortunate to attend The Registry’s Annual Seminar in St. Augustine and spent time talking to many of the current and new members.

The conversations I shared with my fellow members reinforced that it takes tremendous confidence in one’s abilities to consider working outside of the proverbial “comfort zone”. For some, the comfort zone extends only an hour from their house; for others, the comfort zone blankets the entire country.

Our comfort zones also define the roles that we see ourselves in. Several members described to me a desire to fill interim roles that were in lock-step with their past professional experiences. These members explained how they approach interim opportunities with a pre-defined placement in mind: I want to do this role, at this type of institution, at this time.

Others—converts of this prior group—spoke of experiences that “broke the mold” and that they wished they had done it sooner. These were members who came to see Registry interim roles as the opportunity to explore new institutions of varying mission or size compared to what they had experienced before.

So, in this space of not knowing, my third step is committing myself to an institution where I can make a difference, whether it feels familiar or not. While I cannot be sure where the opportunity will be or what role I will fill, I do know that higher education needs all the leadership talent it can get, and I am prepared to embrace the experience.


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