primarily on teaching and research, today’s institutions oversee many
varied off-campus ventures and business enterprises. “The job is far more
complicated,” he says. “Universities are very large, complex, multi-stake-
A 2014 study co-authored by Dr. Turpin looked at some of the rea-
sons behind unfinished presidential mandates. It noted that the role of a
university president has shifted from that of a primarily academic leader
to one that requires professional management skills as well as academic
achievements. At the same time, demands for accountability and transpar-
ency have increased while boards have become more active, increasing
the likelihood of a disagreement with the president.
Julie Cafley, vice-president of the Public Policy Forum, has researched
and written extensively about higher education leadership in Canada,
particularly on the issue of unfinished presidential mandates. Dr. Cafley
notes that of the 18 university presidents who left their posts before the
end of their appointments over the past decade, all were external hires.
And many of them had run into difficulties with their boards, either with
board members failing to understand the complexities of the presidency,
or presidents underestimating the importance of president-board relations.
A change in the makeup of the board or the board chair early into
a new president’s mandate was another potential obstacle, she notes. In
other instances, once the board had chosen a new leader, it paid little to
no attention to the transition process.
The problems go deeper than the board level, however. Dr. Cafley says
that the overall culture of academia is such that those with an interest in
pursuing leadership positions aren’t as supported and encouraged as they
are in the private sector. “The role of a leader is definitely undervalued
within a university environment,” she says.
Concordia’s Dr. Shepard agrees: “Sometimes you need to be covert
about your interest in these leadership roles because other people will
think that you are not a real researcher, or that you’re not a great teacher.”
There are signs that this too may be changing. Some institutions now
offer professional development training programs to those further down
the chain of command. U of R, for one, has a pilot program under way
called URLeading, a six-month course for those who aspire to move into
“Leadership transitions are times of real
excitement and real opportunity.
But let’s face it, they are also times of risk.”
administrative positions, such as department chairs, deans, program heads
and directors. It runs two streams: one for faculty and staff members with
less than two years of leadership experience, and another for more expe-
rienced administrators. The program aims to help participants develop an
awareness of their leadership style and how to build a team, foster com-
munity relationships and develop a support network, among other things.
Programs such as these are a big turnaround from even five or 10 years
ago, says Glen Jones, who was recently named dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. It’s a welcome
development because professional development opportunities at junior
administrative levels can help set the foundation for a successful leadership role down the road, he says.
Taking the same approach to succession planning and professional
development opportunities for presidential hopefuls is trickier because of
the way the search process works, Dr. Jones explains. The decision of who
becomes the next president is officially made by a board of governors,
usually on the recommendation of a search committee and often with the
help of an executive search firm. Often, the successful candidate is from
outside the university. This can make it difficult for a sitting president to
groom a potential successor, as is common in the corporate sector.
When Dr. Jones is asked to speak to board members about governance
issues, he emphasizes how the role of a university president is markedly
different from that of a corporation’s chief executive officer, partly because of the bi-cameral structure and the collegial governance tradition
at universities. He notes as well that there are more limitations to the
office of university president compared to that of a corporate head. Tenure makes it difficult to fire people, he notes, while staffing and funding
changes can’t be made as quickly as they can at private organizations due
to collective agreements and other policies. These are things board members need to understand in order to assess a president’s performance reasonably and fairly, he says.
None of the complexities surrounding the president’s office are lost
on U of S’s Dr. Stoicheff. “It’s difficult to navigate all that on your own,” he
says. “That’s some kind of heroic enterprise that I wouldn’t recommend to
anybody. You need a lot of advice.”