here has been considerable analysis lately of the reasons behind the startling number of Canadian university presidents
who have not completed their first terms. These include a
historical study co-authored by University of Alberta President
David Turpin in 2014, Julie Cafley’s 2015 PhD dissertation
and Rosanna Tamburri’s cover story in the August-September
2016 issue of University Affairs. There is also no shortage of
books on the challenges faced by Canadian university presidents, such as Ross Paul’s Leadership Under Fire (second edition,
2015) and Peter MacKinnon’s University Leadership and Public
Policy in the Twenty-First Century (2014). All of these analyses
shed light on the changing environment and demands on this
critical position, and all make good suggestions for how universities can better support their presidents.
But this is only the tip of the iceberg, for no president leads alone. Little
attention is being paid to the next line of academic administration, the
pool from which the next line of presidents will likely emerge – specifically
the provosts, associate provosts and deans. In fact, no statistics are readily
available on the number of provosts or associate provosts who have fallen by the wayside as presidencies have faltered. And critics haven’t had
much to say about the broader relationship between the administration,
the board of governors and faculty, nor its influence on these other senior
But we do need to pay attention. Faculty and their faculty associations
(more on that distinction later) are expressing discontent with senior academic leaders with increasing intensity and frequency. There have been
at least 10 non-confidence votes by faculty against presidents, provosts,
board chairs, entire boards and executive teams at Canadian universities
in the past three years. The trigger for these non-confidence votes differs
from institution to institution, but the common denominator, not surprisingly, is money: where it comes from, how it is spent and who has input
into these decisions.
What does a non-confidence vote at a university mean? Essentially it
holds no real force. Nevertheless, the effect is like an ear-cuffing – usually
not fatal, but certainly painful and humiliating (and not something every
leader is willing to face head-on). More damaging to university relations is
the self-righteous, them-versus-us rhetoric that surrounds such votes and
maligns the integrity of the administrator or board member.
This raises two key questions. Why do faculty feel that this kind of
action is their only or best recourse to be heard? And second, why do they
have so little faith in their governance bodies? Instead of participating in
their faculty councils and senates, faculty members often defer to their
faculty association executive. The upshot is that, under the faculty association banner, they are sweating the small stuff and ignoring the big picture.
In the process, they are in danger of undermining their most important
advocates and allies in discussions with boards, government and the public: the president and provost.
Faculty associations seem to want a larger managerial role, ostensibly
in defence of the true principles of the university. This much is suggested
in a 2014 article by Stephanie Ross and Larry Savage (“Faculty associations
at the crossroads”), and more recently by Mark Mac Lean and Michael
Conlon (“Faculty awaken to the university governance crisis in B.C.”), both
published in Academic Matters magazine. However, these analyses offer no
accountability and no solutions beyond maintaining the status quo. At this
juncture they have succeeded only in widening the credibility and trust
gap between faculty and senior academic administrators. Meanwhile,
shared governance in universities accords faculty members considerable
influence if they choose to take it. Contrary to the claims by Drs. Mac Lean
and Conlon, what limits that influence is faculty apathy, not nefarious
plots by administrators against faculty members.
Academic administrators – specifically presidents and provosts – step
into their positions out of the academic ranks with a mandate to rise above
the specific needs and biases of a given discipline or family of disciplines.
Their role is to gain a broad overview of the entire university and how its