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Regaining the helm

When a university president leaves unexpectedly, the one who’s appointed interim leader assumes a crucial role in preparing the ground for the next president.

Illustration by Martin O'Neill
Illustration by Martin O’Neill

When the phone rings, the person who answers the call may have expected it for weeks, even months. The caller could be a friend, a former colleague or the board chair, but the message is the same: We need you. Would you consider serving as university president on a short-term basis?

It’s a pitch that is hard to turn down, especially for someone who’s already been president of the institution. “I don’t think any of us sees it as just a job. You give your life to it for 10 years,” says Roger Barnsley, past president of Thompson Rivers University. “And when the board who you’ve worked with for a large number of years asks you to return, you do.”

In recent years in Canada, hiring an interim president to fill in after an unexpected departure appears to be an increasingly common occurrence. (Dr. Barnsley returned to TRU as interim president for 14 months, after his successor Kathleen Scherf was removed by the board in September 2009, just a year into her job.)

“The number of presidents whose terms have been cut short over the last 15 years or so is quite striking,” asserts David Turpin, president of the University of Victoria and a member of the board of directors of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. “By my count, close to 20 percent of the AUCC membership has had a presidential term cut short. Is this unusual? We all think it is. But we don’t have any data.”

Presidents who leave early in their term generally do so for one of two reasons: they get another offer that they feel they can’t refuse, or disagreements with the board lead them to resign or be fired.

Many possible causes have been cited for these sudden departures: pressures of a difficult job, boards that have grown more demanding, over-reliance on search firms or mistakes in the search, an unfamiliar culture for presidents hired from the U.S., growing pains of young institutions, and ineffective governance (see A question of governance, below).

Whatever the circumstances, a sudden departure almost always leaves the campus in a state of upheaval, and the board needs to move quickly to find a leader who can settle things down. It generally looks for an interim president to serve for several months to two years.

At Mount Allison University, the mood “was tense” when Wayne MacKay – by all accounts a popular president with faculty and students – reversed his earlier decision to stay on for a second term, says Bob Winters, who was board chair at the time, in late 2003. “The feeling was that we needed a steady hand at the tiller,” adds Brian Johnston, then a director of the board, “someone who was experienced as a president and had a lot of credibility with stakeholders.” The board chose Kenneth Ozmon, who’d retired four years earlier after 21 years as president of Saint Mary’s University. Although new to Mount Allison, Dr. Ozmon dealt with the tension in a way that “was almost intuitive,” recalls Mr. Winters. “He walked on campus and he knew enough of the senior people, who respected him, and the word just flew through the university community.”

In choosing a candidate, the board has three main options: an experienced outsider like Dr. Ozmon, a former president or senior administrator of the institution, or an administrator currently on staff. The board prefers a “safe choice,” and often that’s the ex-president if he’s available and retains the board’s confidence, says Charles Jago, who returned to lead the University of Northern British Columbia in June 2008 when his successor Don Cozzetto resigned suddenly in mid-term.

Frank Iacobucci, who served as interim president at the University of Toronto, says, “I think it’s important that the interim not be a candidate for the job. I also think it helps if you have some familiarity with the institution.” When he replaced Robert Birgeneau (who left U of T mid-term in 2004 to become chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley), Mr. Iacobucci had just retired as a Justice of the Supreme Court. But, he’d spent almost 30 years at U of T earlier in his career, ultimately as provost and vice-president, academic.

The demands on an interim president can be intense at the outset. The first step is to calm the campus. Next on the to-do list are dealing with problems left by the outgoing president and reassuring stakeholders.

Fred Lowy returned to Concordia University as president this past February, after Judith Woodsworth resigned under duress just before Christmas. The mood on campus was angry and the tension was very public: some media reports said she’d been fired, while the university said she’d left for personal reasons. It was six years since Dr. Lowy, 78, had been president (from 1995 to 2005). He says his first task was to try to resolve tensions on campus and improve morale.

“My number one priority has been to bring together faculty – that is, senate – and the board of governors,” said Dr. Lowy, nearly three months into the job. The senate’s steering committee and board’s executive met several times “and had very frank exchanges. That very much helped clear the air.” Also significant in improving morale, he says, was that both the senate and board agreed to establish a three-person external committee to look at governance at Concordia, chaired by former McGill University principal Bernard Shapiro. The report, released in June, made 38 recommendations, most pertaining to the makeup and functions of the board. The university has supported the findings.

Even though it’s an 18-month term that he took on, Dr. Lowy describes his role as “fully president, and not acting. It has to be a decision-making role or all sorts of things can go wrong.”

That assessment was echoed by all the interim leaders interviewed for this article. Their job, after all, includes keeping in touch with provincial authorities, carrying on fundraising activities and filling senior positions. Dr. Ozmon compares it to “jumping into the stream – you don’t want it to stop. You are working to attract students and money. You can’t say, ‘We aren’t going to do that for the next two years.’”

At UNBC, Dr. Jago accepted the post with a firm time frame of one year and a list “of 15 to 20 things” that he needed to accomplish. “Every board meeting we would go back and review that list,” says Dawn Martin, who had become chair of the board. “It wasn’t a hidden list. The faculty knew what was on that list, too.”

On the other hand, interim leaders say it isn’t their job to set any new directions for the institution. “I won’t engage in any kind of long-term commitment that would be saddling my successor with issues not of his or her making,” promises Dr. Lowy.

“Not a caretaker, but ‘taking care’ was my motto,” says Mr. Iacobucci. “One is passive and the other is active, but with caution and care.”

Among the interim leader’s responsibilities is establishing a stable climate and well-functioning administration so that the university can attract a strong president. Each leader prepares the ground in his own way.

“When I went back in,” recalls Dr. Jago, “I was more of a consultant than a returning president. Among the quirky things, I never sat at the head of a table at any meeting. It became a bit of a joke after a while, but I didn’t want to be seen as a leader; I wanted to be seen as the person helping the institution transition to a new president.”

In a move that would be highly unusual in a normal transition, Dr. Jago advised the board to hire Simon Fraser University’s former president Jack Blaney to chair the presidential search committee. Ms. Martin, then board chair, praises Dr. Blaney for how he guided the discussions on what the committee wanted in a president.

“We had a huge group – I think there were 18 people. Every group on campus was represented,” says Ms. Martin. “By the time we went into the interviews, we were all together on the things we were looking for.”

At Mount Allison, as a way of getting people involved in the choice of the next president, Dr. Ozmon initiated a series of forums on campus to talk about the future – “the kinds of students we wanted, ways to attract students, the quality of programs and so on.” These sessions were well attended and, he says, helped people at every level think about “where we should be going.”

In some cases, the search committee changes aspects of the search the second time around. At UNBC, the committee asked its search firm to visit the university where the final candidate was working, in order to speak to a variety of people from secretaries to deans, “just to get a sense of whether he was what we thought he was,” says Ms. Martin. At TRU, the committee invited the shortlisted candidates to give public presentations, something that the search firm had firmly discouraged the first time around, says Dr. Barnsley.

Not only do interim presidents prepare the ground so that strong candidates will apply, but they’re often involved in the selection of the new president as well. For one thing, that’s a big part of why they were hired. For another, it is something they feel they’re able to do in these circumstances.

“I was no longer in my mind replacing myself,” explains Dr. Jago. “I was replacing a failed president. I didn’t have the same personal things at risk as I had the first time.” He helped draw up a short list of candidates and gave his assessments of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses but didn’t advise on whom to hire.

At TRU, when Alan Shaver was selected as the next president, Dr. Shaver asked the board to retain Dr. Barnsley for three more months while he himself acted as “president designate,” taking the time to meet people and get up to speed on issues in a less stressful way, says Dr. Barnsley. The two men even travelled together to Asia, an important area for recruitment and joint programs for the university.

“It was such a generous offer on Dr. Shaver’s part,” says Dr. Barnsley, “and it provided the kind of transition experience we all wanted.”

A question of governance

Canada has a serious dearth of data about its university presidents, says David Turpin, president of the University of Victoria. For example, how has the career path for presidents changed? Have their disciplines, gender and ethnicity changed over time? And, not least, are the difficult transitions that Canadian universities have experienced in their leadership unusual?

“Everything at this point is anecdotal, and what I want to do is build a robust database that allows us to ask some of these questions in a scholarly fashion,” says Dr. Turpin. He plans to ask for help from university archivists in populating the database that he has begun working on.

In Dr. Turpin’s view, some recent incidences of “failed presidencies” reflect problems of governance. “Many of the presidents whose terms have been cut short had absolutely no idea that there was a problem until they were asked to step aside, which in my view is a failure of governance,” he says. “It speaks to a lack of performance review and engagement by the board.”

A separate project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, will compare how universities are governed through several in-depth case studies. “We are trying to understand how a number of universities are governed in a detailed way, paying particular attention to the university’s freedom or lack of freedom in its relation to government and other external agencies,” explains Glen Jones, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto (who recently served on the three-member committee advising Concordia University about its governance). His co-researchers are Julia Eastman, university secretary at the University of Victoria, and Claude Trottier, associate professor in education sciences at Université Laval.

Peggy Berkowitz
Peggy Berkowitz is the editor of University Affairs.
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