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The search is on at the top

As Canada and the U.S. experience a generational turnover of university presidents, the tough task of filling the executive office gets even tougher


When it comes to selecting a new president, universities follow a distinctive – and to an outsider somewhat perplexing – process.

Presidential search committees tend to spend the better part of a year scouring the globe in search of potential candidates. Sometimes they choose leaders from within the university’s own ranks, but more often than not they look to those of another institution. Typically the chosen candidates are Canadian, but citizenship is not mandatory. Usually they are accomplished scholars, but again, an academic background is not a necessity.

Writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rita Bornstein, former president of Florida-based Rollins College and author of numerous articles and books on the university presidency, states: “We Americans” – though the same could be said of Canadians – “expect college presidents, like super-heroes of popular culture, to be more than ordinary mortals. We seek visionary leaders, superb scholars, charismatic personalities and high-energy candidates for the presidency. In addition, and perhaps most important, we search for fundraising wizardry. … Yet, for all the demands on presidents, the position does not require the grasp of a discrete body of knowledge or the attainment of a specific degree. There is no clear route to the presidency and the job has been filled successfully, and unsuccessfully, by scholars, business leaders, fundraisers, lawyers and priests.”

One thing, however, is clear, Dr. Bornstein notes: the process of selecting a university president is markedly different from the process used by the business sector, which depends heavily on succession planning and spends considerable time grooming, nurturing and training its future leaders.

For those who aspire to the university presidency, the route to the top is not clearly demarcated, and training opportunities are by comparison slim. But as Canadian universities start to experience a remarkably high turnover in their top ranks, some argue it may be time to take a second look at succession planning. It’s an idea that higher education had previously ignored.

Consider: more than half of the presidents at Canada’s 92 member institutions of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada left their posts over the past five years. Twelve universities are currently in the process of seeking a new president (see “On the hunt” box below), while at several other universities, the presidents have indicated they won’t be seeking another term once their current term expires a few years from now. The 2008 academic year kicked off with several new leaders at the helm, including David Barnard at the University of Manitoba, Allan Rock at the University of Ottawa, Judith Woodsworth at Concordia University, Vianne Timmons at the University of Regina and Roseann Runte at Carleton University, among others.

The exodus is fuelled by several factors. Part of it is due to the strain of the job, says Jean-Marie Toulouse, professor and former director of HEC Montréal. Presidents, he says, are under more pressure nowadays from a growing list of constituencies, including faculty members, governments, boards and parents. And, he says, they operate in an increasingly competitive environment. “People are expecting a lot from universities, and boards are conscious of that,” Dr. Toulouse says. “If a president doesn’t deliver, questions get raised from some corners.”

And that eventually “takes its toll,” says Sheila Brown, past president of Mount Saint Vincent University. But in her own case and in others that she’s familiar with, she adds, it was simply a sense that it was time to go, a time when the institution could benefit from renewal.

Presidencies tend to “have a best before date,” adds Libby Dybikowski, who until recently ran an executive search firm in Vancouver. It’s only the exceptional leader who can complete more than two consecutive mandates and maintain the support and enthusiasm of all the disparate constituencies. “People like to see change every decade or so,” she says, and the selection of a new president is an opportunity to inject new blood and fresh ideas into an institution.

And although a few presidential appointees have made their exit prematurely in recent years, the most likely explanation for the current spate of departures is demographic, Ms. Dybikowski says. What we’re seeing, she suspects, is the greying of the university presidency.

A recently published U.S. study by the American Council on Education, or ACE, found that almost half of American university presidents were aged 61 or older in 2006, compared to less than 15 percent who were that age 20 years ago.

“We’re anticipating that over the next 10 years we are going to see a big wave of retirements,” says Jacqueline King, assistant vice-president of the Center for Policy Analysis at ACE. “One of the challenges you could face in Canada is that we may be trying to poach some of your best people – obviously some of that has already occurred – because we are going to have a lot of presidential vacancies to fill.”

As those senior experienced leaders get set to take their leave, the question at the forefront of many institutions is: who will take their place? One of the challenges boards and search committees face is the task of finding someone who can juggle the many responsibilities of the presidency – a person who has the support of the academy and at the same time can deal effectively with managerial and administrative duties, government relations and, increasingly, fundraising.

Terry Sargeant, chair of the board of governors and head of the presidential search committee at the University of Manitoba, says his committee had “a considerable debate” at the outset about whether to look for an academic with administrative skills or a good CEO. “We got advice from the external business community that we should look at the CEO model,” he says. “We had strong pushback from many different constituencies on campus who insisted that it needed to be an outstanding academic with administrative skills. And in the end that’s the route we went.”

The committee selected Dr. Barnard, who served as the president at the University of Regina from 1998 to 2005. Dr. Barnard left and then became chief operating officer at a Regina information technology company.

Mr. Sargeant says the search committee didn’t find it difficult to come up with qualified candidates for the job from both within the university and without, although he notes that at least one candidate was initially reluctant to throw her hat in the ring because she felt the job would be too demanding.

At Carleton, David Dunn, former chair of the board and head of the presidential search committee, says the committee cast its net far and wide in the initial search phase. “We were extremely open to looking in university life, government life and industry” in Canada and internationally, he says. The committee even debated the merits of the candidate requiring a PhD, he adds. The committee eventually selected Dr. Runte, then president of Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, who’d held senior positions at several Canadian universities including the presidency of Victoria University (federated with the University of Toronto) from 1994 to 2001.

At the University of Ottawa, meanwhile, the board selected Mr. Rock, a former member of Parliament who’d held several high-profile cabinet posts and then was Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. That choice has rankled many at the university because he is not an academic, according to Ron Melchers, criminology professor at the university. But it isn’t a view that he shares.

“I think universities need a breath of fresh air,” Dr. Melchers says. “Once one has spent 25 or 30 years inside an institution, one doesn’t have a global view of the needs of the institution as a whole.” And while many recent presidential appointees have been selected from other institutions – a positive trend, in his view – only a few have come from outside academia altogether. As the number of vacancies at the top continues to increase, some observers predict that more universities may follow U of Ottawa’s lead.

Recently, the presidential selection process has run into trouble at Memorial University, in a manner that worries both faculty unions and university administrations. In a highly unusual move, the Newfoundland government rejected two candidates under consideration by the university’s search committee. Memorial’s board of regents called the actions “inappropriate interference” that undermine the university’s autonomy and “severely” impair its search for a new president. The Newfoundland government has dismissed the allegations.

HEC’s Dr. Toulouse called the situation at Memorial “worrisome” for all universities. The government’s involvement, he says, not only hampers the board’s search for a new president but could also affect the university’s ability to recruit new faculty. There’s also a risk that some of Memorial’s best faculty members could choose to go elsewhere. In his opinion, governments have a duty to get involved in university matters in certain exceptional circumstances, such as suspected fraud or other criminal activity. “But, apart from that, it’s difficult to justify such an intervention,” says Dr. Toulouse.

A panel chaired by Dr. Toulouse recently recommended that the Quebec government do away with its practice of appointing presidents of universities in the Université du Québec network, in favour of a search committee process (see “Quebec governance expected to change” box below).

As universities struggle to come to grips with the large turnover in their executive ranks, some observers say it may be time to rethink the concept of succession planning.

“I think succession planning kind of got a bad name because it conjured up ideas of the Old Boys’ club,” says Dr. King of the American Council of Education. “But I think that higher ed is warming to the idea.” She finds it interesting that university boards – whose members generally come from the business world where succession planning is de rigueur – don’t insist on it at the universities they oversee.

HEC’s Dr. Toulouse, for one, predicts that as university boards continue to become increasingly active, they will begin to raise the issue. He knows at least one instance where this has occurred and says there are bound to be others. “If private companies do it, it’s because they realize that you just don’t one day wake up as a president. You prepare yourself.”

Succession planning doesn’t have to mean, as some fear, abandoning the search-committee process, an integral aspect of presidential searches, says Mount Saint Vincent’s Dr. Brown. “And I don’t think succession planning means that we cut back on collegiality.” Nor, she adds, should it mean grooming senior administrators exclusively for one’s own institution, but rather for the higher education community as a whole.

The absence of succession planning is a “weakness in the university management system,” acknowledges Tom Traves, president of Dalhousie University and chair of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. But, he says, it’s not an easy thing to implement, given the culture and structure of universities.

In business, succession planning usually entails moving senior managers from one vice-presidency to another to give them a broad understanding of the company’s operations. In universities, it’s rare for a vice-president to move from one portfolio to another, and virtually unheard of for a dean to do so. The only way around this, he believes, is to expand leadership training opportunities for senior administrators, especially for deans and vice-presidents.

A few programs and workshops already exist (see “Training to be president” box below), but Feridun Hamdullahpur of Carleton University says that even more helpful would be a systematic leadership training program, particularly one geared towards what it means to be a university president. As interim provost and vice-president academic at Carleton, Dr. Hamdullahpur recently attended a seminar led by three university presidents who spoke about their personal experiences on the job.

“Each one of them said how stressful it was, especially at the beginning, how they had to re-evaluate and rethink their personal relationships to people – how lonely that job could be.” It was the first time he’d heard mention of the personal toll the job can take.

To be sure, succession planning has drawbacks, too. For one, signing up for such a program means that potential presidential candidates are exposing their ambitions for higher office; as Dr. King of the American Council of Education notes, it’s only a certain type of individual who “will put themselves on the line.” Another obvious factor is cost – not only the expense of the program itself but also the cost of making do without a dean or vice-president while he or she is away on training.

On the other hand, “the cost of poor leadership is pretty high too,” says Dalhousie’s Dr. Traves. “We are training institutions,” he adds. “Surely some degree of education for our leadership group shouldn’t be beyond us, although it appears at the moment often to be so.”

On the hunt

These universities have presidential searches under way:

  • Acadia University
  • Brandon University
  • University of the Fraser Valley
  • Laurentian University
  • Memorial University
  • University of New Brunswick
  • University of Northern British Columbia
  • Université Saint-Paul
  • Université de Sherbrooke
  • Queen’s University
  • Trent University
  • University of Western Ontario

Quebec governance expected to change

Quebec Education Minister Michelle Courchesne has pledged to introduce legislation soon to tighten governance at Quebec universities.

The promise of new legislation comes in the wake of a controversy at the Univérsité du Québec à Montréal to do with cost over-runs for two new building projects. It is expected to implement some of the recommendations made by the Working Group on University Governance, which was chaired by professor and former HEC Montréal director Jean-Marie Toulouse.

The group recommended that a majority of members of a university board be independent from the university – a change that has been strongly opposed by faculty groups in the province – and that Quebec universities adopt a new system for selecting their executive heads, one similar to the search committee process.

Currently presidents at many of Quebec’s francophone universities (where they are known as rectors) are elected by an electoral college or assembly, while those at the Université du Québec network of institutions are appointed by the Quebec government based on university election results and board recommendations.

Dr. Toulouse says the electoral system is too subject to politicking and back-room deals. Having presidents run on election platforms “isn’t proper” in a university environment, he says. The system also eliminates the possibility of an external candidate being considered.

Search committees are used by universities in the nine other provinces and some universities in Quebec.

The Working Group on University Governance was created in late 2006 by Quebec’s Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations. The institute is a joint venture of HEC and Concordia University’s business school.

Training to be president

In Canada, there is no systematic leadership training program for people who aspire to become a university president. Some workshops and courses, however, are geared to senior university administrators and newly appointed executive heads.

The Centre for Higher Education Research and Development at the University of Manitoba gives several courses for senior university administrators and middle managers.

The Conference Board of Canada offers workshops and meetings for vice- presidents and other senior administrators through its Quality Network for Universities. The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada offers a seminar for newly appointed presidents.

U.S institutions have a gamut of training programs that are open to Canadians, including those offered by the American Council on Education and Harvard University.

Rosanna Tamburri
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