1 University of Ottawa (CANADA)
2 Bishop's University (CANADA)
About this paper:
Appears in: ICERI2015 Proceedings
Publication year: 2015
Pages: 6699-6708
ISBN: 978-84-608-2657-6
ISSN: 2340-1095
Conference name: 8th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation
Dates: 18-20 November, 2015
Location: Seville, Spain
“Turfed”, “let go abruptly”, “resigned” or “quit” – the language may change but the scenario itself is discouragingly frequent. “Never has Canadian university presidential leadership been under greater scrutiny than it is today” (MacKinnon, 2004, p. 132). In the past decade alone, at least 17 Canadian university presidents have had their first mandates cut short. This is costly and unfortunate for all concerned. And my research suggests it’s largely avoidable.

In the course of completing my PhD studies, I spent time with six of the affected leaders, exploring what factors led to these failures, and what changes could be made to reduce their frequency.

In all, six areas of concern emerged as having played a role in undermining their ability to lead. These include board governance and communication; trust within the executive team; mentorship; the role of the predecessor; the effectiveness of the transitional process; and issues relating to diversity.

Each of the presidents with unfinished mandates I interviewed raised significant concerns regarding board governance and communication. All reflected extensively on their troubled relationships with their Board of Governors, and, in particular, the board chair. In a few cases, a change of Chair early within their mandate made the board-presidential relationship more difficult. Some admitted they should have made board relations a larger priority, and wished they’d invested more time in the relationship.

The informants shared significant concerns about multiple aspects of board governance. An overall lack of good governance was apparent in each of these cases of unfinished mandates. All too often, the board implemented a governance review only after the unfinished mandate. Other concerns related to ethical issues ignorance about governors’ roles and a misunderstanding of the academic enterprise.

Closely related to the theme of board governance, all six presidents shared a deep level of mistrust with at least one member of their executive team – the provost, the secretary, VP finance or external. Some informants shared a desire for mentorship or further leadership support in their role, reflecting on how lonely it can be at the top. In a similar vein, each of the presidents shared an unhelpful or non-existent relationship with their predecessor. Many of those I interviewed with unfinished mandates were surprised by the unwillingness of their predecessor to share insights and key transitional information regarding the institution. Having come from outside the universities they subsequently led, such insider context would have been valuable.

Canada faces a shrinking pool of candidates interested in becoming a university president. These leaders are chosen based on an engaged and inclusive process, involving many campus stakeholders. Canadian university leaders, policy makers, board members and executive search firm leaders have an obligation to take a critical look how they can do better.

As some Canadian university presidents with unfinished mandates observed, it’s critically important to use the transition period to solidify relationships in pursuit of success. Strong board governance, relationships of trust, support to leaders, and a focused strategy for diversity and leadership are essential components of this strategy required for change.
Higher education, university leadership, university president, organizational socialization, transitions, higher education policy, leadership derailments.