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Woodsworth, president and vice-chancellor at Concordia poses in Montreal, November 26, 2009. For Top 100 Women supplement.

Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail/Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Judith Woodsworth's sudden Christmastime departure from Concordia University's presidency has laid bare a history of tension and instability in the institution's upper ranks, which faculty members fear will drive away future leaders and donors.

Insiders had hoped a culture of conflict between senior administrators and long-serving board members was put to rest when Prof. Woodsworth was hired, but many now believe more transparent governance may be the only way to begin restoring Concordia's name.

Faculty members say the board has been too casual about hiring and firing, saddling the school with expensive severance packages that divert funds from academics.

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There is confusion across campus about Prof. Woodsworth's departure, and at the board's silence in its wake, raising questions about the role of the board and its executive in her departure.

"I meet people in the elevator, in the hallway, on the sidewalk, and everybody has questions, and no one has answers," said Lucie Lequin, president of the Concordia University Faculty Association.

Two distinct tales have emerged. A joint statement released on Dec. 22, just as Concordia shut down for the holidays, said Prof. Woodsworth was resigning for personal reasons, but she has since contended she was effectively fired.

"I would have been happy to continue as president, but some board members said that they had lost confidence and they felt I should step down," she said. "I was not given the reasons, so that's all I can tell you."

A Concordia spokeswoman said the university stands by its statement, which also says Prof. Woodsworth helped give Concordia an "enhanced reputation on the local, provincial, national and international scenes," and that because she resigned, the board held no vote. Board chair Peter Kruyt declined to be interviewed.

"There was no groundswell of opposition to her," said Enn Raudsepp, a recently retired Concordia professor and former vice-dean.

Yet present and past faculty say the board has long had stormy relations with administrators, creating a leadership carousel: Prof. Woodsworth is the second president shown the door mid-contract in little more than three years, after Claude Lajeunesse in 2007, and five vice-presidents have resigned in as many years. The advocacy group Free Education Montreal has highlighted the fact that half of Concordia's eight most senior administrators now carry "acting" or "interim" tags.

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Prof. Woodsworth leaves the president's office less than halfway through her five-year term, meaning the university must pay out two more years of her contract, totalling some $703,000. Dr. Lajeunesse was let go after just over two years after clashing with the board, collecting more than $1-million in severance pay.

In contrast to Dr. Lajeunesse's no-nonsense manner, Prof. Woodsworth had a "nurturing, healing kind of style," said Prof. Raudsepp. Early on, she spoke of bringing the university together, which some took as a tacit commitment to improve relations with the board.

If Prof. Woodsworth was forced to step down, it is unclear who had the authority to tell her to do so. The executive is made up of external governors James Cherry, Brian Edwards, Annie Tobias, Jonathan Wener, and Mr. Kruyt, plus one faculty and one student member. The board's nominating committee, which decides who joins and is re-elected, consists of the same five external governors, plus a sixth, Baljit Singh Chadha.

That this inner circle makes many of the board's decisions is now "a shared impression" among Concordia's faculty, Prof. Lequin said.

Of 40 board members, the 23 representing the community at large are mostly corporate leaders. Those 23 votes make up a majority that is "enough to seal most decisions," Prof. Raudsepp said, leaving academic voices feeling squeezed out.

Some speculated that Prof. Woodsworth's expenses might have been a factor, citing travel claims for her husband, Lindsay Crysler, a former Concordia professor, and a trip to the Vancouver Olympics as guests of a company that provides services to Concordia.

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But Prof. Woodsworth dismissed the theories as "red herrings," saying she had board permission for the Olympic trip, that her contract allowed her husband to travel with her when useful, and that she was "much more frugal" than her predecessors.

Prof. Woodsworth expects to resume teaching in Concordia's French department after an administrative leave, but said "you never know what might come up."

Prof. Lequin said the school's growing reputation for administrative instability is its greatest concern.

"Who will dare apply for the position?" Prof. Lequin said. "It's a very sad way to begin a term."

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