The abrupt departure of Wendy Cukier from the position of president of Brock University before she even began should lead institutions to examine how women are faring in their senior ranks, public leaders say.
Dr. Cukier's appointment was announced in mid-December last year and she was supposed to start her new job on Thursday. On Monday, the St. Catharines, Ont., university said in a statement that the school's board of trustees and Dr. Cukier had come to the "mutual decision not to proceed with [the] appointment."
No reasons for the decision have been released and observers of Canadian universities have been left to wonder what role gender may have played. That could well have been a factor, said David Turpin, president of the University of Alberta.
"Over the last few years, more women than men are being terminated early. ... Now the question that is being raised is are there some gender biases in this as well?" he said.
Dr. Turpin and his research colleagues recently updated their analysis of the number of university presidents who either lost or left their jobs before the end of their mandates. Their final results will be released soon, but he said that the number of such incidents has been increasing since 2011.
"The increase is dramatic," he said.
"The rate of turnover is not good for the presidents, it's not good for the [university] system and it's not good for Canada," he said.
Having a presidential mandate end before it even begins is unusual. High-profile early departures at the University of British Columbia and the University of Saskatchewan over the past several years happened within one or two years after new presidents took over.
Next week, Brock's board of trustees plans to hold a meeting to discuss the appointment of a new interim president until a permanent hire can be found, said Gary Comerford, the board's vice-chair.
Jack Lightstone, Brock's last president, was in the post for about a decade as the university grew to 15,000 undergraduates and more than 850 graduate students. He ended his term on June 30, and the university has had an interim leader over the summer.
"One of the major challenges that Brock has right now is that its senior academic leadership is all fairly new or interim," said Linda Rose-Krasnor, president of the Brock University Faculty Association.
Dr. Rose-Krasnor pointed out that the provost and the vice-president of research are also interim appointments.
"So the failure of the president's search leaves a big question mark about senior leadership and where that's going over the next year," she said.
An alumna of Brock, Dr. Cukier was returning to her alma mater after developing an accomplished career and reputation as a senior academic leader and social activist. She will be returning to Ryerson University in Toronto, where she is a professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management.
Dr. Cukier founded Ryerson's Diversity Institute, which conducts research on how to improve diversity in the workplace. She also sits on multiple national and international boards and think tanks, and was vice-president of research at Ryerson for years.
"I know Wendy as a mover, she's an innovator," said Julie Cafley, vice-president of the Public Policy Forum, who has studied Canadian university leadership. "As a woman coming from Toronto, who wants to move faster, who is not held back from formalities that sometimes exist in traditional institutions, that might have become an issue," she said.
Diversity will be one of the attributes a new search committee will take into account, Mr. Comerford said. "Diversity does matter. Boards, university administrations have to reflect the community they serve."
Mr. Comerford said he hopes the search for a new president will begin soon. The search that ended with Dr. Cukier's appointment took a year.
"We are going to be very deliberate in the search," he said. "It's not something where we are going to take a pause."