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The evolving role of president takes its toll

University heads increasingly have to juggle competing interests and the balancing act isn't always easy


For university presidents, life at the top has never been much of a picnic. But lately the challenges seem to have multiplied.

Within a four-week period towards the end of 2006, presidents at three Canadian universities resigned their posts. David Atkinson and Robert Hawkins stepped aside from Carleton University and University of Regina, respectively, after less than 16 months on the job. Roch Denis was serving his second term when he left the helm of Université du Québec à Montréal.

In the U.S., more than a dozen leaders left abruptly last year, including the high-profile and often controversial Lawrence Summers at Harvard. Though circumstances vary, some observers say the recent spate of departures is a sign of the increasing challenges and pressures presidents face today.

“Personally, I wouldn’t touch it with a barge pole,” says David Kirby, director of the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Development, referring to the top job. “The challenges are so enormous today.”

Presidents, he says, must be first and foremost good managers, rather than accomplished academics, able to juggle an increasing array of complex issues and answer to a growing number of constituencies. At the same time, universities face greater scrutiny and accountability by students, parents and governments, says Dr. Kirby.

University boards – like their private-sector counterparts – are also demanding more accountability and enforcing stricter measures of performance, sometimes leading to clashes with presidents, adds James Downey, who has held the presidency at Carleton University, University of New Brunswick and University of Waterloo.

What’s more, universities have been through an expansionary phase, which can also create turmoil, says Dr. Downey, who runs a seminar for new presidents for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and who was recently named president of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The steep budget cuts of the 1990s were difficult but they united universities against what was perceived to be an outside threat, he says. “Now the enemy is within in the form of competition for a share of those new resources.”

Dr. Summers’ ouster from Harvard last year, he adds, may also have had a ripple effect across the academic landscape, emboldening faculty and boards at other universities.

As challenging as the current situation is, Dr. Downey believes it isn’t any more so than in the past. Universities have been through turbulent times before, he notes, including the student protests of the 1960s and the unionization of faculty in the 1970s.

University of Western Ontario President Paul Davenport agrees. “My desk was always full,” says Dr. Davenport, now in his third term as president. “But the issues I’m working on have changed.” Universities compete more vigorously today for students, faculty and research funds and rely more heavily on fundraising, he says. As their reliance on external funds has increased, so too have demands for greater accountability.

Other leaders agree that external issues have been front and centre in recent years. John McLaughlin, president of the University of New Brunswick, says his first few years on the job were “consumed” with meetings with government officials, service clubs and industry groups. At about the same time, the university mounted an ambitious marketing and capital campaign. “I would say on reflection that there were days when the balance [between academic priorities and external issues] was out of whack,” he says. “I was away when I was needed here.”

As Dr. McLaughlin sees it, universities are in transition, trying to respond to pressures for greater accountability while preserving academic governance models and traditions. “It’s tough living in both worlds,” he says.

“I think there has to be a more distinct university form of public accountability,” adds University of Winnipeg President Lloyd Axworthy. Otherwise, universities jeopardize losing their independence, he argues.

Dr. Axworthy, who previously held several important federal cabinet posts, says he finds decision-making at universities even “slower and more grinding” than in government. Standard management practices widely accepted in the federal bureaucracy, like employee and program evaluations, are difficult to implement at universities because they are seen to “rub against the grain of the peer system,” he says.

A study group recently formed by Quebec’s Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations will examine many of these same issues. The institute is a joint initiative of HEC Montréal and Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business. The study group, chaired by Jean-Marie Toulouse, professor and former director of HEC Montréal, has been asked to assess the current practices and challenges relative to university governance in Quebec and to make recommendations on how to improve it.

Dr. Toulouse says it would be premature to comment specifically on the challenges facing university presidents until the group has had time to consider the issue. Most presidents of Quebec’s francophone universities, called rectors in Quebec, are elected rather than appointed. The report is due by the end of June.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., last year was “among the most turbulent for college presidents,” says Paul Fain, staff reporter at the Washington-based Chronicle of Higher Education. While it’s difficult to draw broad conclusions, Mr. Fain says many of the disputes involved financial difficulties. Faculty members, disgruntled over having their department budgets cut and salaries frozen, locked horns with presidents whose pay, in some cases, rose dramatically.

The president’s job has become “much more difficult and political,” he says. “They have to be charismatic, aggressive and not step on toes often while making tough decisions.”

In some ways, he adds, the job is becoming more like that of a chief executive and, in fact, an increasing number of U.S. university leaders have been tapped from the business sector, a trend CHERD’s Dr. Kirby expects will spill over into Canada.

“I think universities are evolving into different kinds of beasts which are much closer to the corporate model with more public accountability built in,” Dr. Kirby says. He predicts universities will increasingly look out- side academia for their leaders – people with well-honed managerial and communications skills who will act as the public face of the university, someone “who goes around shaking hands and kissing babies … and raising funds for the institution,” he says.

That’s a development not everyone would welcome. “I don’t subscribe to the idea that a business leader can come in and run a university more effectively,” argues UNB’s Dr. McLaughlin. “You might improve the bottom line but you would destroy the soul of the place.”

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