For the past three years, the University of Oklahoma has had an administration in flux.
OU is on its third president since spring 2018, and has had even more shakeups on a lower administrative level. Vice presidents have left or been fired; deans have retired or been terminated; even the football program had major leadership transitions.
The organizational chaos of the last 36 months has meant that some of the university’s interim deans have been working in those temporary positions for years, the searches for their replacements delayed due to larger administrative changes.
As OU runs under an interim president of 15 months, the university is also operating with a team of interim deans who are trying to think toward the future in temporary positions.
Of the 16 deans on OU’s Norman campus, seven are interim as of the start of this month. The number stands out on Big XII campuses: at the University of Texas Austin, none of the campus’ 18 deans are interim. At Oklahoma State’s Stillwater campus, only one of the 10 deans is interim.
As OU’s interim president Joe Harroz begins to focus on stabilization, the university has started to kick off permanent dean searches for several of the colleges.
At an Oct. 23 Board of Regents meeting, the regents approved search committees for University Libraries, the Honors College and the College of Professional and Continuing Studies. The engineering, business and international studies dean search committees have mostly wrapped up their process, and should have permanent deans in place by the fall 2020 semester, said OU Provost Kyle Harper.
Despite the temporary nature of their jobs, interim deans can sometimes add more stability to an institution, said Paula O’Loughlin, chair of the board of directors for the American Conference of Academic Deans. They often bring either years of respect or experience in a department, or can offer a fresh perspective, she said.
“I know lots of people who are in these positions, and they do it out of love for the institution usually,” O’Loughlin said. “So they usually have tremendous political capital, often very trusted by their colleagues. So I think that sometimes, they calm the waters. Rarely have I heard of interims making things more chaotic.”
Not just placeholders
But the administration-wide turmoil at OU has made for a longer dean replacement process than many interims anticipated.
When Martha Banz, interim dean at the College of Professional and Continuing Studies, took over the position in January 2017, she thought she’d lead the college for about 18 months, at which point a search committee would select a permanent dean and she would be replaced. It’s been nearly three years.
In the span of Banz’ tenure as interim dean, President David Boren announced his retirement and retired nine months later, President James Gallogly was appointed president and then retired less than a year into the position, and Harroz was appointed to a 15-month interim term. Search processes stalled around Boren’s retirement and during Gallogly’s short term, when the university also experienced changes on a vice presidential level, Harper said.
“It’s a result of our institutional circumstances. It certainly wasn’t by design,” Harper said. “The reality is when you have a long-term president whose retirement is announced well in advance, in general, during that phase of sort of known retirement, you would kind of slow down top level administrative searches. So you had a period really of the entirety of the last of a year or so of President Boren’s tenure when we stopped really launching major new administrative searches.”
Though OU may stand out right now because of its sheer quantity of interim leadership, high rates of administrative turnover are more and more common in academia, O’Loughlin said.
“It’s not because there’s something wrong, but presidents and deans and provosts — three to five years, that’s about how long any of us stay in this job. It’s hard work,” said O’Loughlin, who is also provost and dean of the faculty at Coe College.
Despite the administrative changes that have kept her in the interim job, Banz said she’s had success by continuing to look toward her college’s future, even if that future doesn’t involve her leadership.
“... I can’t act like an interim, I mean, in the sense that we’ve got to keep moving ahead,’” Banz said. “There are some really important strategic decisions that need to be made, and that need to transcend whoever is in leadership.”
Banz’ mindset is common among the interim dean team; while their positions may be temporary, they can’t afford to think short term.
“We do want them to be leaders — they’re not just placeholders,” Harper said.
The strategy means that OU colleges have continued to implement new programs under interim deans. The Price College of Business, currently under interim dean Wayne Thomas, just received approval to launch a new aerospace MBA program.
John Antonio, interim dean of the Gallogly College of Engineering, is one of the newer interims this year — he took over for former dean Thomas Landers in August 2019. Antonio said his mission has been clear to him since he took over.
“The deans are important — we provide leadership and vision — but it’s not like the ship stops sailing when we have an interim dean,” Antonio said.
At this point, Banz isn’t the only interim who’s gotten adept at doing a temporary job long past its expected expiration date. Douglas Gaffin, the interim Honors College dean, has been in the position for slightly more than two years. He’s also adapted through three presidencies now, and has had to make his own sacrifices along the way.
Gaffin once devoted most of his time to research and teaching; he ran a scorpion research lab that was his passion. For the past two years, that lab has been on the back burner, managed by students as he tackles the administrative and managerial aspects of being dean.
“It is difficult — as an administrator, your schedule is Swiss cheese for sure,” Gaffin said. “I’ve been fortunate, though, to have some great students in the lab that sort of keep things afloat, and some of them I met right down here at the Honors College.”
Antonio said he’s had to scale back his research and teaching too — after spending years in administrative positions, pursuing his own research feels almost “selfish,” he said. But in his short time as interim dean, Antonio said he’s been working to forge ahead for his college, following an example set by Harroz.
“He’s not acting like an interim and we’re taking his lead, like, ‘well, let’s just move forward,’” Antonio said. “My position is, my philosophy is: I want this college to do well, and our faculty and students and staff to do well, and if that’s me in the future, great. If it’s not, I want to make sure the next person has a good footing and a foundation.”
Finding support systems
Unlike Antonio, Banz and several other interim deans, Gaffin didn’t come to the position directly from an administrative background. But a key factor that’s helped him adjust to the role has been the dean community’s support, he said. OU’s deans, interim or not, will gather at least once or twice a month and communicate via email, asking and answering questions for one another.
It’s one of the strengths that’s kept the team afloat through years of administrative transition, Harper said.
To lessen the learning curve and make things easier on interims, OU selects interim deans who not only show leadership and management skills, but have respected tenures in the colleges they’ll temporarily represent, Harper said. Many of the current interims bring associate dean experience or years of service with their departments.
Harper said he’s “eager” to start finding permanent leadership for the colleges, especially since he’s chaired several search committees and is actively involved in finding new deans. But the team that’s in place, even with multiple interim deans, has taken care of its own and its colleges, he said.
“They care about the university and realize that our success is all tied together,” Harper said.
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