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University presidents spend fewer years at the top on average, new research shows

Canadian university presidents also more likely to be turfed by their boards than in the past.


Life at the top of a big organization has never been a cakewalk, but new research shows that the complexities faced by modern-day university presidents could be leading to shorter presidential tenures.

Canadian university presidents are likely to spend less time at the helm of an institution than their counterparts in the past and are more likely to be forced out the door by increasingly activist boards of governors, according to research by David Turpin, former president of the University of Victoria.

Dr. Turpin started researching presidential tenures after witnessing what he believed to be an unusually high number of leaders who had been forced to leave their posts prematurely. Using figures provided by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, Dr. Turpin compiled a database of 981 leaders who have held the president’s post over the past 224 years.

His findings show that the average length of service has declined steadily from about 20 years in the mid-1800s to about 10 years in the mid-1990s. (Before 1840, there were too few universities to provide meaningful comparisons, he said.) Since several presidents appointed in the 1990s are still in office, Dr. Turpin also calculated presidents’ average number of years in the job, allowing him to come up with a more up-to-date figure: the average years in the president’s job has declined to roughly four today from eight in the late 1950s. (Dr. Turpin calls this “average years of experience” and calculated it by taking the number of years that each leader had accumulated as president of their current institution in any given year, and averaging it.)

He found that 12 presidents left the office within three years of their initial appointment between 2006 and 2010, compared to four who did so in the preceding five-year period and three from 1996 to 2000. Anecdotal evidence suggested that many of the early departures in the most recent time period were a result of board terminations, he said. Universities in other countries including the U.S., the U.K. and Australia have witnessed the same trends, he observed.

Dr. Turpin, who spent 13 years as the head of UVic before stepping down in June, witnessed first-hand how the role of a university president has changed over the years. The position has gone from being primarily that of an academic leader to one akin to a chief executive officer that requires “the ability to lead a very large and complex multi-stakeholder business enterprise.” This could be one of the reasons behind the trend to shorter terms, he said in an interview. “We are generating more money through business enterprises, technology parks and off-campus, wholly owned subsidiaries.”

At the same time, the pool of potential presidential candidates has shrunk, making it harder to find and attract experienced candidates, he observed. Because universities hired few faculty members in the 1980s and early 1990s compared to previous decades, fewer candidates with the breadth of experience required for the top job are now available, he said.

The changing role of boards of governors has also played a role, he added. University boards, like those in the corporate sector, have become more involved in an institution’s day-to-day activities and in governance issues. “If there’s a problem they are going to be far more inclined to deal with it than they might have been before,” he said. “By the same token, you might have some boards that are far more interventionist and as a result will create problems that didn’t exist. You can have a situation where dysfunctional boards can feel emboldened and feel that they can take action and it’s no fault of the president at all.”

Another factor in turnover in the top position has been the appointment of external candidates. This has become more commonplace as universities have sought to broaden the range of candidates. “Interestingly, all of the early departures over the last 15 years, every one of them has been an external appointment,” Dr. Turpin noted, “which really speaks to the issue of cultural fit. … If you come from another institution, it can be a challenge to adjust to a new culture.”

On the other hand, universities don’t have a history of identifying and grooming internal candidates for the top job, as corporations do. “I think part of it is the culture of our institutions,” Dr. Turpin said. “We all start off in this because we love research and teaching. It’s sort of un-toward to be aspiring to a leadership position.” But more universities are putting in place leadership development programs for department chairs, deans and other senior administrators, which he sees as a step in the right direction.

Several recent presidential appointees have been internal candidates, he noted, a reflection of universities doing a better job of “building and developing their own talent.” Boards and presidents also seem to be making more of an effort to work together. “Boards are spending more time building a relationship with a new president and making sure a new president is well integrated in the community,” he said.  At the same time, new appointees seem to be more aware of the importance of engaging the board in governance issues. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we didn’t see as many short-lived presidencies over the next few years,” he predicted.

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