Skip to main content
postsecondary education

Students on campus of the University of Victoria, in Victoria,BC Friday September 28, 2012 . Chad Hipolito/For The Globe and MailCHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

Over the next year, Canada's postsecondary leadership will undergo dramatic change. Four university presidents, with 50 years of combined experience, are preparing to turn the job over to a new generation who will be charged with steering the sector through an era of sharp change.

Earlier this month, Dalhousie announced its new president, who will start in June: He is Richard Florizone, a 44-year-old with a PhD in nuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and experience at the World Bank. The University of Toronto and McGill, the leading institutions in the country, and the University of Victoria, which has established itself as an international player, are also now searching for new leaders.

The current presidents have had to deal with this era's financial constraints by becoming fluent in the language of money, from fundraising with alumni and private donors to defending the sector against competing public priorities. Their successors must continue those efforts – while strengthening Canada's global brand against ambitious new competitors. Winning the international race requires strong personalities, and some observers argue that famously secretive search committees should take this moment to look outside the walls of the ivory tower.

"The job is bigger than it ever was, and it's way more visible. It's not the ivory tower any more. There's all these rankings, and institutional profile is critical," said Ross Paul, the former head of two Canadian universities and author of Leadership Under Fire, a book about the role of the university president.

Dr. Paul examined 47 recent presidential appointments in Canada; 41 came from outside the university and 85 per cent of them held senior academic administrative positions at another Canadian school. "We're very parochial, I believe, and I think we really need to expand that base," he said.

Some small and medium-sized Canadian universities have been willing to gamble on non-traditional choices, and their experience has shown there can be benefits to casting a wider net. That discussion has only recently reached larger institutions, where failures would be more public.

"Now you've got more of a private-sector, entrepreneurial kind of a funding model, and therefore you need that kind of leadership," said Anna Stuart, a vice-president at executive search firm Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette. "I don't think that says absolutely look outside, but it probably says we need to have a different perspective."

At the American Ivy Leagues, which are also undergoing a generational turnover, some of the globally recognized heavyweights being touted as candidates for the president's job at Princeton, Dartmouth and Yale included U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and David Petraeus (before an infidelity scandal triggered his resignation as CIA director). Canada has its share of speculation about potential star candidates – Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney has been mentioned, for example.

But it remains unclear whether Canada's most prominent figures would adapt well to university cultures, or whether they can be lured by salaries that are typically $400,000 or less – generous by public-sector standards but far shy of the $1-million-plus salaries top U.S. schools offer.

It is also apparent that conversations about outside candidates' desirability do not translate into appointments. Yale promoted its own provost, Peter Salovey, and the University of California, Berkeley turned to Columbia University's dean of arts and sciences, Nicholas B. Dirks. Dr. Florizone's experience with private-sector firms and the World Bank speaks to Dalhousie's desire for someone able to balance the books, but his current role at the University of Saskatchewan suggests an academic background matters.

"[Boards] may talk about the Tim Geithners of the world, and it may sound good at first, but when they get serious about what kind of skills they want the incoming president to have, the safest place to look is inside of academia," said Raymond Cotton, a Washington-based lawyer specializing in university presidents' contracts.

Still, the University of Ottawa broke the mould in 2008 when it named former federal politician and United Nations ambassador Allan Rock as president. At times, he has clashed with students and professors, but his networks outside academia have helped boost the university's standing in international rankings. "I saw a bit of a shift there," said Marc Jolicoeur, U of Ottawa's former board chair. "While some did express a preference for an internal candidate [with university experience], they did not dismiss the possibility of going outside."

Canada's most obvious outside-the-box hire may have been Dominic Giroux, a former assistant deputy minister in Ontario's government with an MBA. Mr. Giroux was just 33 years old when he was named Laurentian University's president in 2009. When billionaire entrepreneur Ned Goodman gave a multimillion-dollar gift toward Laurentian's new school of mines last month, he noted that he first tried to arrange the gift years ago with Mr. Giroux's predecessor, Judith Woodsworth, but found Mr. Giroux more receptive.

It is "to our detriment" that Canadian institutions are less ready to look outside their own ranks for leaders, according to veteran search consultant Janet Wright. What they might find, she said, are presidents "who have the bona fides that would make them credible in the [university], but who have honed their specific skills in other places as well."

"The days when the gentleman scholar could become the president of a multibillion-dollar operation, I think, are gone," Ms. Wright said.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Check Following for new articles