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Margin Notes

Examining the leadership of university presidents

A new book is just one of several upcoming examinations of university leaders.


This is a guest post by University Affairs‘ editor Peggy Berkowitz:

Last week, during a reception at the membership meetings in Montreal of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, Ross Paul was invited to introduce his new book, Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President. Dr. Paul – who retired a few years ago after two terms as president of the University of Windsor – seemed relaxed and cheerful in his current role as an author and adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. Copies of his book, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, were selling briskly with this receptive audience.

Leadership Under Fire (more on that below) is the first of several books and scholarly works that are under way about the Canadian university presidency. Why so much attention on university leadership in Canada right now? I’m not sure, but one reason might be the faster-than-usual turnover in presidents at Canadian universities (see “The evolving role of president takes its toll”). As David Turpin, president of the University of Victoria, said in a more recent UA article, “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.”

Dr. Turpin is one of the people researching Canadian university leadership right now. He plans to build a data base that provides answers to scholarly questions about university presidents’ career paths, disciplines, gender and ethnicity and how these have changed over time. Another project, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, is comparing university governance at several Canadian universities; it’s led by Glen Jones, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

During the AUCC reception, Julie Cafley, now vice-president of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa, dropped in to see Dr. Paul and do some homework for her PhD thesis in education at the University of Ottawa (where she formerly worked as chief of staff to former president Gilles Patry). Her thesis topic? Failed presidencies at Canadian universities.

So, all in all, in a few years’ time, we may have access to much more information and insight about leadership at Canada’s universities.

Meanwhile, Leadership Under Fire is based on leadership theory and Dr. Paul’s own experiences and in-depth interviews with 11 recent presidents in Canada. The book broaches some of the hot-button issues for presidents – international outreach and financing, for example. It also includes an appendix of presidential profiles from “eleven [presidents] who made a difference.” I’m sure I wasn’t the only reader who flipped to the back first – and what delicious tidbits Dr. Paul uncovered, such as:

  • Peter George, the influential former president of McMaster University, grew up on Toronto Island, where he brought his dog to school and where his grandfather had been lighthouse keeper.
  • James Downey, (president of the universities of New Brunswick and Waterloo), at age 17 was principal of a two-room school in Newfoundland. At 19, he was preaching as a United Church minister while studying at Memorial.
  • William Leggett, former principal of Queen’s University, was, for two years in elementary school, the janitor of the one-room schoolhouse, “coming in early to light the wood fire, clean the boards, poor water down the chemical toilets, scrub the floors and ensure the place was ready for the school day.” And Dr. Paul can’t resist adding: “To many faculty members, this sounds like the ideal presidential profile!”

To read more of these, you’ll have to get the book.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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