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In 1969, McGill University invited a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Education who had covered the student revolt in American universities to come to Montreal in the hope he would offer comparisons that might soothe upset alumni at a major annual fundraising dinner. Working then for the alumni association, I spent the day prior to the dinner introducing him to various student leaders, including the three Marxists who had won the top posts in the student association elections.

“If I were offered the role of principal of McGill University or president of Columbia University,” he said that evening, referring to the site of one of the most high-profile student protests in the United States, “and a gun was put to my head and I had to take one, I would pick McGill.” As McGill’s principal watched from the head table, the reporter explained in the United States the protests were led by angry and motivated students but they lacked the sophisticated political understanding and ideological commitment of their McGill counterparts.

In 1978, then an education reporter watching the choice of a new president for the University of Toronto, I got a call from a source telling me the deadlock on the selection committee had been broken. For months, the committee had been torn between naming the existing presidents of the University of Western Ontario or Guelph University, but instead it had opted for someone not previously given much attention, James Ham, the dean of graduate studies at U of T. I called Prof. Ham for comment and he was perplexed: He had not only not been informed he was the prospective president but had not even been interviewed by the committee so clearly I had it wrong. As I persisted, he became alarmed and upset. Always blunt-spoken, he told me he had the best job in the university right now, dealing with faculty research and innovation. Why would he give that up for the headaches of being president? There was no chance he would be so foolish, he assured me. The next morning, the selection committee’s designates knocked on his door. I don’t believe a gun was put to his head, but he accepted.

As we watch university leaders under fire these days, it’s worth remembering the job has always been a tricky tightrope walk. There was a time when student activists – and indeed some student leaders and student organizations – supported the Viet Cong rather than Palestinians. Faculty members were assailed for egging them on. Police were being called to campuses to break up protests. “Four dead in Ohio,” Neil Young wrote achingly in a song. University leaders were struggling to find a path that maintained the freedom of thought expected in the institutions with the demands from the public – and donors – to just stop this nonsense, immediately. It was a difficult task then and probably worse now, not because students are more outrageous but because society is more polarized and we are more aware of the need for psychological safety.

In his book Leading Leaders, Tufts University professor emeritus Jeswald Salacuse says many leadership concepts are drawn from sports or the military, but those fields are hampered by an assumption of a structure of authority that doesn’t exist in universities. At universities the boss isn’t really a boss. Indeed, before Prof. Salacuse began a stint as dean of law at Southern Methodist University, a senior member of faculty with whom he was friendly suggested the new post was “custodial in nature.” A dean’s job was simply to keep the buildings operating and let the faculty continue their all-important work. Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of studying leaders, said of his time as president of the University of Cincinnati in the 1970s: “In the end I wasn’t very good at being a president. I looked out of the window and thought that the man cutting the lawn actually seemed to have more control over what he was doing.”

It’s not just universities. This diminished or limited authority applies in other fields where leaders are leading followers who are also leaders themselves – well-educated, well-paid and often concerned as much with their outside affiliations on task forces and industry committees as their internal role. This can range from investment banks to management consultancies to even some areas in traditional corporations. Leading such leaders in their own right can be like herding cats – elite, pampered cats who can become truculent when not treated properly.

It’s worse in universities because there is no real owner and for all the hierarchy, many academics are oppositional, with tenure, and not inclined to fall in line. Students are paying customers, with rights (and the ability to hire lawyers). The panoply of interests is indeed the universe, with colleagues in the same department often having limited knowledge of the teaching and research of the person in the office next door, making it difficult to understand let alone oversee their work.

Everyone is supposed to be given free reign to explore ideas, no matter how controversial. Students’ minds are supposed to be broadened by being exposed to new knowledge and often they overreach out of youthful zealotry. And as we have seen recently, what makes sense in the university can make no sense before the U.S. Congress, media and the public.

Universities are complex places, difficult to lead. If you’re a skilled manager and offered the chance to be the president of a university, good luck.


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Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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