residential terminations and resignations are nothing
new, even in the staid world of academia. Yet, rarely have
they played out in so public a manner as the abrupt departure of president Arvind Gupta at the University of British
Columbia in the summer of 2015 or the messy dismissal of
Ilene Busch- Vishniac as president of the University of Saskatchewan a year earlier. Quebec had its own drama in May
2015, with the resignation of Nadia Ghazzali, rector at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières, following a critical report
by Quebec’s auditor general. All three leaders left before
completing their first mandates.
Amidst the turmoil, Peter Stoicheff was named the 11th
president of U of S, a position he took up in late October 2015. A former
English professor and a classical guitar composer with two recordings
to his name, Dr. Stoicheff had served as dean of the college of arts and
science at U of S for four years and knew the internal workings of the
institution and its culture well. But there was a lot he didn’t know, he
readily admits, and that weighed on him.
“Transitions are crucial,” says Dr. Stoicheff. “The note you strike,
the directions that you set, the tone that you put out there in the first six
months, it’s hard to change that. And you really need some advice right
from the beginning about what those things should be.”
Dr. Stoicheff counts himself lucky for having had the support of a
presidential transition advisory committee. The 17-member panel includ-
ed representatives of the university’s board of governors, administration,
faculty, students, alumni and other constituents. In the early days of his
appointment, members of the committee organized meetings between
Dr. Stoicheff and provincial government officials. Others introduced him
to the local business community and to donors. Also at the committee’s
recommendation, Dr. Stoicheff met with other university presidents and
hosted dinners for groups of faculty members.
The committee also acted as a sounding board. “I can tell him candidly how I think things are going. He can test out things with me,” says
Michael Atkinson, a long-time faculty member and former provost who,
at the board’s request, served as committee chair.
So, as the committee wraps up its work, does Dr. Stoicheff believe his
transition has been a success? He demurs politely and suggests that’s for
others to judge. But he does say, “I really feel like I’ve had tons of support.”
Dr. Stoicheff predicts that within a few years’ time, all universities will
have some sort of formal transition process. “I think it will become abso-
You could argue that it’s long overdue. But, as Dr. Atkinson points
out, until recently most new presidents usually landed safely on their feet
even though they may have stumbled on occasion. It’s only within the past
decade or so that there’s been what he calls “an epidemic of presidents
really struggling.” And U of S wasn’t spared. Its former president, Dr. Bus-
ch-Vishniac, was dismissed by the board of governors less than two years
into her mandate; she has since launched an $8.5-million wrongful dis-
missal suit against the university, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and
the province’s former minister of advanced education.
“We understood right away that the stakes were very high,” says Dr.
Atkinson of the committee’s mandate. At the same time, “we had the situation at UBC unfurl pretty much right before our eyes,” he adds in reference to Dr. Gupta’s sudden resignation last summer, apparently due to
a rift between him and the board of governors. “There was also a general
sense that universities in this country were not doing enough to ensure
the success of their new president,” says Dr. Atkinson.
But as U of S has demonstrated, that may be changing. In adopting a
transition committee, it borrowed a page from its neighbour to the west,
the University of Alberta, where a similar advisory group was put in place
to welcome president David Turpin before his installation in 2015. Admittedly, the circumstances of his appointment were different. Dr. Turpin was
a seasoned academic administrator who had successfully led the University of Victoria for more than a decade. And he was taking over the reins
from Indira Samarasekera, who had completed two successful terms at
the helm of U of A. Still, the university was taking nothing for granted.
“Leadership transitions are times of real excitement and real opportunity. But let’s face it, they are also times of risk,” says Debra Pozega
Osburn, vice–president, university relations, and chair of the transition
committee at U of A. “I think the days when we could just sit back and
hope for the best are long behind us.”
U of A’s committee had two principle functions: to honour the legacy
of Dr. Samarasekera, and to usher in Dr. Turpin. But each institution is
different and a committee’s mandate should reflect its own particular circumstances, says Dr. Pozega Osburn.
The panel came up with an 18-month plan that covered the time from
when Dr. Turpin’s appointment was first announced in 2014 to the end
of his first year in office. For his part, Dr. Turpin travelled to Edmonton