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Graduating PhD and Masters students head towards Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto on Friday, June 15, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)
Graduating PhD and Masters students head towards Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto on Friday, June 15, 2012. (Matthew Sherwood For The Globe and Mail)

ROSS PAUL

The best university presidents are often close at hand Add to ...

This week’s presidential appointments at two of the top Canadian universities reflect elements of change on our campuses. McGill’s choice of NSERC president Suzanne Fortier as its new principal continues a new trend of appointing women to leadership positions in our top research universities while Meric Gertler is the University of Toronto’s third recent internal appointment in four searches.

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Internal appointments have not been the norm for Canadian universities. In my 2011 book, Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President , I noted that 87 per cent of the most recent presidential appointment at 47 Canadian public universities came from outside the institution. The comparable figure today is still 85 per cent.

However, given the increasing number of unsuccessful presidential appointments across Canada, estimated at about 20 per cent by long-time University of Victoria president David Turpin, there is some evidence that selection committees are paying more attention to internal candidates. Like Toronto, the universities of Calgary, Waterloo and Victoria have each hired one in their most recent searches. This trend builds on successful similar appointments at the universities of Saskatchewan, Guelph and Toronto itself where the incumbents have been renewed for second terms of office.

This is a very dynamic and challenging time to be taking on a university presidency in Canada. Public funding is on the downturn and there is increasing recognition that this is not part of a cycle but a new permanent state. New technologies have opened up our institutions and students adept at manipulating the Internet and social media are demanding more independent and active ways of learning. The former ivory tower is now one of the most prominent, visible and accountable public institutions in modern society with high expectations for its performance from governments, taxpayers, parents, students and employers alike. Presidents are held accountable for a host of key performance indicators, including the institution’s standing on an increasing number of national and international reputational surveys.

All this pressure for change confronts the long-standing collegial culture that has helped the university survive as one of our longest standing public institutions. Academic freedom and dissent are the heart of the institution’s role in society and the successful president must protect and preserve them while ensuring the institution’s continuing relevance and public support.

This is a large order. Each university has its own organizational culture, one not instantly recognizable. Like an iceberg, so much of it lies beneath the surface. External appointees have to learn quickly “how things are done around here.” There is widespread recognition that universities must adjust to the times, but that the best way to truly change a culture is first to understand and appreciate it and then to work through it to make the necessary adjustments.

Universities are seeking strong leaders with impeccable academic credentials who can also take on a multiplicity of responsibilities from strategic planning and fiscal management to collective bargaining, government and community relations and fundraising. It is a challenge to find someone with skill and experience in all of these areas who also can operate effectively within a traditional academic culture. When the chips are down, it is probably easier to train someone in specific facets of management than it is to help them adjust to the particularities of a given institution. Although an external appointee, Suzanne Fortier is a McGill alumna and someone very familiar with the Quebec university scene so it is likely that she will be able to adjust more quickly than most to her new position.

Nevertheless, there are strong advantages to knowing an institution intimately at the outset of a presidency. Dr. Gertler knows the key players and processes well, and will thus “hit the ground running” from day one. This contrasts with the more familiar pattern of bringing in an outsider who tries frantically to learn the ropes in time to take significant action before the honeymoon period is over.

Successful succession planning has long been a hallmark of private sector success. It is encouraging to see an increasing number of internal appointments in our leading universities. At least, they know what they are getting.

Ross Paul is adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia and former president of the University of Windsor and Laurentian University

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