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Margin Notes

The revolving door at the top at Canada’s universities

There have been 96 changes in leadership at 65 Canadian universities in the past five years. Why?


There will be at least a dozen new faces when the presidents of Canada’s universities meet in Ottawa next week for the annual meeting of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. They’re part of what appears to be quite a dramatic turnover in recent years in the head offices on Canadian campuses.

According to information supplied by AUCC (publisher of University Affairs), there are 53 university heads (presidents, principals or rectors) who are serving a first term at their respective institutions. Twenty-eight of these first-term heads have been appointed since the beginning of 2008.

Looked at another way, there have been 96 changes in leadership at Canadian universities in the past five years. However, 29 institutions have had no change in leader during that time. Therefore, the 96 changes have occurred at the remaining 65 institutions (AUCC has 94 member institutions).

Let’s read that again: there have been 96 changes of leadership at 65 AUCC member institutions (universities and university colleges) in the past five years.

To be honest, I do not know if this sort of turnover is unusual. It might simply reflect a generational change happening at the top of Canada’s universities, an issue we addressed last year in our feature, “The search is on at the top.” Or, as I suspect, it may also reflect the more challenging role university presidents are expected to play today – a topic we addressed in a 2007 article, “The evolving role of president takes its toll.”

Among some of the recent university presidents who did not complete their first term, for various reasons, was Don Cozzetto at the University of Northern British Columbia, Karen Hitchcock at Queen’s and most recently Kathleen Scherf at Thompson Rivers University.

It’s not an easy job being a university president.

AUCC holds workshops for new presidents every year or so to help guide them in their new roles. A revamped version of that workshop, called the Professional Program for Presidents of Canadian Universities, is being held in January 2010 in collaboration with the University of Manitoba’s Centre for Higher Education Research and Development.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is a former editor of University Affairs.
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