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Leadership in turbulent times

The shifting landscape at universities around the world is creating some unfortunate casualties. In the Canadian context, the presidents at the University of British Columbia, the University of Saskatchewan and L’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières are some of its latest victims. In fact, we have seen at least 18 abrupt departures in Canada over the past decade – university presidents with an unfinished first term.

A trend is seen in media reports and opinion pieces, primarily in Canada, the UK, Australia and the United States. These commentaries question presidential resignations, early departures, unfinished mandates and even rare reinstatements, as seen in 2012 at the University of Virginia.

Journalists, past presidents, and academics endeavour to pinpoint the reason for these shortened mandates. Sporadic circumstances cite a campus scandal.

However, most articles refer to issues such as a potential disconnect between the board and the president, a concern over presidential management skills and leadership style, or university finances.

Universities both within Canada and internationally are continuing to face greater complexity triggered by global competition, the changing needs of students and employers, decreased public sector funding, issues of accountability and increasing and conflicting expectations from a growing number of stakeholders.

These complex and unique institutions are transforming before our eyes. This disruption and fast-paced change creates new challenges for leaders.

Increased scrutiny

The roles of university presidents are changing too. And they are under an unprecedented level of scrutiny. Leading through turbulent times and moments of crises requires leadership excellence, an adaptive personality and thick skin. The leaders must simplify complexity and build trust among a variety of parties.

Elaborate job descriptions are fascinating to read and yet many stakeholders on university campuses do not agree on how the university president should spend his or her time and where the focus needs to be. It takes a trusted leader to manoeuvre with confidence in such a complex system.

Of course, the university itself is a paradox. On the one hand, these are organisations that are radical, forward-thinking and innovative. Big-thinkers are contributing to the next disruptions – pushing the boundaries of thought in the humanities, advancing science and leading technological advancements.

And yet the governance of universities is rooted in tradition and governance structures are generally slow-moving and often averse to change. This contradiction in approach makes these institutions enormously challenging to govern and to lead effectively.

The changing role of presidents

Within my PhD research, I examined, through the lens of Canadian university presidents with unfinished mandates, the role of the university president. Some of my findings help to uncover a better understanding of the changes that are occurring within universities and the challenges for university presidents who are on the cusp of this change and leading through turbulent times.

My research is unique in the Canadian context, drawing on first-hand accounts from university presidents with unfinished mandates. These presidents shared, in full trust, their disappointments, failures, successes and lessons learned. In doing so, each showed a desire to improve the system and to support other presidents in their mission of leading. Their feedback and experiences had many common threads.

A key theme underlying each of their comments was the importance of building a sense of trust. Trust was a common element in both their successes and failures. Some presidents regretted the trust that they gave; others were never able to give the trust they needed to.

Some felt weak links in their relationship with their board of governors, others felt weak links within their leadership team, and many were challenged by both parties.

In my research, 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.

Two of these themes, board governance and diversity, require specific consideration and action.

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 chair of the board. In a few cases, a change of chair early in their mandate made the board-presidential relationship more difficult.

Some admitted they should have made board relations a larger priority and wished they had invested more time in the relationship earlier in their mandate.

A disconnect with university culture

The informants also shared significant concerns about multiple aspects of board governance. An overall lack of good governance was apparent in each case. All too often, the board implemented a governance review only after the unfinished mandate.

In the hiring process, there were issues related to a lack of disclosure, and, in some cases, a sense that the board had delegated its responsibility to an executive search firm.

Other concerns related to ethical issues – ignorance about governors’ roles and basic good governance practices. There was a strong belief that there was a misunderstanding of the complexities of the academic enterprise by board members and a real disconnect regarding the realities of university culture.

Regarding the issue of diversity in university leadership, there is much to do. My informants referred quite openly to the ‘old boys’ club’ within universities.

In the Canadian context, only 20% of university presidents are women and this statistic has remained unchanged for the past two decades. Furthermore, the last six out of eight university presidents in Canada to have their mandate cut short have also been women.

In a country where we have gender parity in Cabinet and a larger number of female undergraduate students than male, the university system needs to undergo some radical change in order to be current with the times and provide the leadership that reflects both student and faculty populations.

Unfortunately, much of the commentary and discussion regarding the choice of university presidents still reverts back to the question of 'fit'. When you dive into the research on organisational fit, you quickly learn that this is an outdated concept and often perpetuates the status quo.

In most cases, in universities and beyond, fit works against the core principles of diversity. Unfortunately, our unconscious bias tells us that a university president is white, middle-aged and male.

Of course, this is not the type of fit we are necessarily seeking. The important value of diversity at the leadership level needs to be openly discussed and understood. Action is required.

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. University leaders, policy-makers, board members and executive search firm leaders have an obligation to take a critical look at how they can do better.

While universities are building, nurturing and developing tomorrow’s innovators, many are plagued by a conservatism in governance structures that impedes change, discourages innovation and perpetuates the status quo. Universities need to lead the effort to change this.

Dr Julie Cafley is vice-president of the Public Policy Forum in Ottawa, Canada.
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