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Margin Notes

Thinking inside the box on university presidential appointments

The heads of Canada’s universities are rarely hired from outside academe.


It was a week of big news in Canadian postsecondary education (and I’m writing this on Tuesday) with the naming of the two new executive heads at two of Canada’s flagship universities. On Monday, the University of Toronto named the current dean of its faculty of arts and science, Meric Gertler, to become its next president; and on Tuesday, McGill University chose the current president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Suzanne Fortier, to become its new principal.

The two announcements, together with a couple of other recent presidential appointments at the University of Victoria and Dalhousie University, mark a definite changing of the guard at Canada’s universities. As Globe and Mail reporter James Bradshaw noted back in November, the four departing university presidents (David Naylor at U of T, Heather Munroe-Blum at McGill, Tom Traves at Dalhousie and David Turpin at UVic) have a combined experience of 50 years in the corner office.

Interestingly, the article by Mr. Bradshaw also speculated on what type of leaders universities should be searching for nowadays, raising the question of whether hiring committees should look outside the academic ranks for new talent. He reports that U of T officials “toyed with breaking the mould and appointing a non-academic” as president, but “after listening to students and professors,” decided to choose the insider (Dr. Gertler, as mentioned, is U of T’s current dean of arts and science and joined the university in 1983). Likewise, Jamie Cassels, who becomes UVic’s president in July, comes from within; he is the university’s current vice-president, academic, and before that was UVic’s dean of law.

Suzanne Fortier is not quite a McGill insider, but is an alumna, having received her BSc and PhD at McGill. And although her most recent experience is as head of NSERC, she has a strong background in senior academic leadership in Canada, serving at Queen’s University as associate dean of graduate studies and research, VP research and then VP academic.

Maclean’s columnist Paul Wells picked up on some of this in a blog post. He writes:

In hiring close to home, both universities [U of T and McGill] can be taken to be demonstrating either quiet confidence in the maturity of Canadian academe, or a chastened realization that in a time of limited resources, even the biggest schools are wise to stick to their knitting. Both schools instituted global searches and wound up bypassing candidates from afar in favour of local produce.

The only outlier of the group – barely – is Richard Florizone, who becomes president of Dalhousie in July. Dr. Florizone is the current VP of finance and resources at the University of Saskatchewan, but has significant experience outside academia, for instance as director of strategic initiatives for Bombardier Aerospace. He also had been seconded for a one-year administrative leave while at USask to serve as a senior adviser to the International Finance Corporation in Washington, D.C.

Ross Paul, the former president of the University of Windsor and Laurentian University, wrote a book on the subject of university presidents in Canada in 2011, entitled Leadership Under Fire. Dr. Paul examined 47 recent presidential appointments in Canada – not including the four most recent – and found that 85 percent of them had held senior academic administrative positions at another Canadian school before being hired. “We’re very parochial, I believe, and I think we really need to expand that base,” he told the Globe’s Mr. Bradshaw.

Non-academic hires do happen in Canada, but rarely. The best example – the exception that proves the rule? – is Allan Rock, president of the University Ottawa. Mr. Rock was a Member of Parliament and served as a federal minister in various portfolios, including justice and health, and later was named Ambassador of Canada to the United Nations. He is a U of Ottawa alumnus, but had never been a university faculty member and had no previous experience in senior academic leadership.

Two other recent examples are Laurentian University President Dominic Giroux and, most recently, Nipissing University President Michael DeGagne. However, Mr. Giroux is hardly a stranger to the education sector: he served as deputy minister with the Ontario Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and before that as chief financial officer of two French-language school boards in Ontario.

Nipissing’s Dr. DeGagne earned a PhD in educational administration from Michigan State University and also a Master of Laws degree from York University’s Osgoode Hall, but spent his entire career until his presidential appointment outside academe. Prior to his appointment, he was executive director of the Aboriginal Healing Foundation, a not-for-profit private corporation in Ottawa.

So, what do you think: Are Canadian universities parochial in their presidential hiring, or prudent?

Postscript, March 6, 2013: An interesting tidbit I forgot to mention above is that we never know who else might have applied for a president’s position, or whether the chosen candidate applied elsewhere, because the search process is confidential. That is, except at Quebec’s francophone universities, where the search process is public and the candidates are even expected to “sell” themselves to the university community. Because of that, we know that Dr. Fortier had presidential ambitions before. She was in the running for university rector (same as a president) at Université de Montréal in 2004. An advisory committee recommended Dr. Fortier as the top candidate but the university’s board of directors opted instead for Luc Vinet.

Postscript 2, March 6, 2013: I see that Ross Paul has a commentary in the Globe and Mail this morning in which he seems to be in favour of internal appointments. “There are strong advantages to knowing an institution intimately at the outset of a presidency,” he writes, and adds further down: “It is encouraging to see an increasing number of internal appointments in our leading universities. At least, they know what they are getting.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Frederick FRANCIS / March 6, 2013 at 15:36

    The role of the University president has changed significantly over the past few years. One of the major objectives expected of the president, is that s/he are expected to be “well-connected” and be fund raisers. The Canadian university president profile has now morphed to that of the US model.

    It would appear that the university academic culture to have a “non-academic president” is one which is not yet the norm. Having an academic president (from the internal ranks) is perceived as both having stability and credibility.

  2. Heather Ganshorn / March 7, 2013 at 15:02

    “…[T]he four departing university presidents…have a combined experience of 50 years in the corner office.” This idea of “combined experience” is one of my HUGE pet peeves. In what sense is their experience combined? Can each draw on the additional experience of the others? Of course not. Just becuase four quarters combined equals a dollar, does not mean that the separate experience of individuals who may not even know each other makes any kind of meaningful combination.

    • Léo Charbonneau / March 7, 2013 at 15:13

      Oops, that was just sloppy writing on my part. I should have written, “the four departing presidents … have a combined 50 years of experience…”

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