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Margin Notes

The (continued) revolving door at the top of Canada’s universities

Sudden departures and generational change mark the office of university president in Canada.


For a while now, University of Victoria President David Turpin has been wondering about the turnover of university presidents in Canada. This was prompted partly by the sudden departure of 12 university presidents within three years of their appointments – i.e., before the end of their appointed terms – between 2005 and 2010. This compares to just three unexpected departures in the previous five-year period.

By virtue of their appointments, university presidents are members of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. As Dr. Turpin said in a Sept. 2011 article in University Affairs, “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.”

I bring this up because Dr. Turpin presented some initial research for his “Canadian University Presidents Project” at the annual AUCC membership meeting in April 2012. It was a closed meeting, so I didn’t hear the presentation. However, I recently discovered that he posted the slideshow of his presentation online at the UVic website, available publicly.

A lack of experience could be playing a part in the spate of sudden departures over the past few years. The average length of service of university presidents has been declining, according to Dr. Turpin’s data, from an average of about 13-14 years in the 1950s to under six years in 2010. Looking at the data somewhat differently, Dr. Turpin found that a currently serving university president had, on average, 3.6 years of experience in 2010, compared to an average of 4.9 years in 2004. (More after the jump.)

At University Affairs, we’ve written about the generational turnover of university presidents in Canada since at least 2008. In 2009, I noted in a blog post that 53 university heads (out of a total of 94 member institutions) were currently serving a first term. I just rechecked those numbers, and since the beginning of 2009 there have been 49 new presidents appointed (out of 95 member institutions), so the generational turnover continues (I discounted two appointments where the appointees had previously served as president at another institution). The Globe and Mail picked up on the theme in a recent article.

Dr. Turpin hypothesizes a number of reasons for the early departures:

  • The role of president has become more complex (a theme we looked at back in 2007)
  • The pool of candidates has declined
  • There’s been an increase in “external” appointments
  • Use of search consultants may decrease the engagement of the Board of Directors in hiring decisions
  • Board activism has increased (there has been a number of recent Board-initiated early departures)

Dr. Turpin says he plans to continue to build his database and that he hopes it will provide more answers about university presidents’ career paths and how these have changed over the years. He may soon find himself with more time to devote to the project: he steps down as president of UVic in June 2013 after 13 years at the helm.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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