The alarming rise of failed university presidencies

Canada’s public universities have flourished for years under relatively independent boards of governors. However, with the democratisation of higher education, they are no longer ivory towers but very public and increasingly accountable institutions and there are signs that they are feeling the strain.

One of the most striking outcomes has been an alarming increase in the failure rates of Canadian university presidents. In the past decade, more than 25% have failed to complete their first term of office, a figure that was well below 10% in earlier eras. Some high profile examples have stimulated a lot of soul searching on campuses across the country.

From Montreal to British Columbia

Concordia University in Montreal had consecutive presidential failures in 2007 and 2010. What was particularly striking was that both presidents had been apparently successful as leaders of another Canadian university and yet each left the Concordia job after little more than two years. The university commissioned a full review of its governance and made a number of changes before recruiting again.

A recent high profile case involved one of the country’s top universities when Arvind Gupta was dismissed as president of the University of British Columbia, or UBC, after only a year in the job. The same day his “resignation” was announced, Jennifer Berdahl, a senior research chair in power, gender and diversity, wrote a blog speculating on whether his “soft leadership style” meant that he had “lost the masculinity contest among the leadership at UBC...”

The aftermath complicated matters considerably. UBC’s board chair, ironically the sponsor of Dr Berdahl’s chair, telephoned to admonish her for her public comments. She also received some pressure from administrators in her faculty and reported on both incidents publicly.

This led the university to commission a third-party inquiry which concluded that Dr Berdahl’s academic freedom had not been upheld by the university, although it did not find the board chair to have infringed any of the collective agreement or other relevant policies. Feeling vindicated, the board chair nevertheless resigned.

UBC is again seeking a president and Dr Berdahl was named one of three faculty members on the search committee. However, with the faculty association actively considering a motion of non-confidence in the board and many wondering about the viability of a presidential search at a time of such turmoil, she recently resigned from the committee. Her resignation and the Concordia example notwithstanding, UBC is continuing with the search.

The truth will out

It is not always easy to divine why a particular president has been unsuccessful, especially because the reasons are usually masked by non-disclosure agreements. Designed to protect both president and board, they often backfire, both because the information vacuum fuels negative speculation and because the truth, or at least vestiges of it, almost inevitably leaks out.

This happened dramatically at UBC when the university inadvertently released a slew of emails between the president and board chair that showed how quickly the board had lost confidence in its new president.

While the answers vary per institution, there are remarkable similarities across the country. Julie Cafley, whose 2015 doctoral thesis was the first to examine this phenomenon in Canada, interviewed six derailed presidents and found that, in each case:
  • • The president encountered communications difficulties with some board members and distrust from at least one member of the senior management team;
  • • Board members were misinformed or unaware of their role and responsibilities;
  • • Vital information was not disclosed to the president until after he/she had been hired;
  • • There was an unhelpful predecessor.
In all but one case, there was also little transitional support from the board. After putting so much time and effort into presidential searches, too many university boards then expect the appointee to simply get on with the job. Given that the incumbent has usually come from outside the institution and that the job requires so many different dimensions of leadership, it is folly to think that any individual will be equally experienced and prepared for all facets of the role.

This applies especially to a first-time president, often one who has never previously worked on or for a board. The newcomer will need both mentoring and on-boarding to learn the institutional culture, develop a strong team and delegate responsibility in areas where he or she has less training or experience.

The buck stops at the board

Ultimate responsibility for the success of a president resides with the board. Many of its members are used to running their own businesses and may be unfamiliar with the academy’s preoccupation with process and high tolerance for debate and dissent. Most importantly, board chairs and presidents need to know the crucial differences between management and governance and to respect and support their respective roles.

Not surprisingly, it is increasingly difficult to find well qualified individuals willing to take on a university presidency. Nevertheless, it is still a plum job and there are many people who can perform it well if the board fulfils its responsibilities in an open and supportive way.

This means ensuring mutually agreed upon, clear and public expectations for what the president is expected to do and how he or she is to be evaluated. Ultimately, university boards get the presidents they deserve!

Ross Paul is a former president of Laurentian University and the University of Windsor in Canada and the author of Leadership under Fire: The challenging role of the Canadian university president (2nd Edition, 2015).