A few years ago, David Turpin and a couple of colleagues decided to look into an under-studied area of Canadian academia: the role of the university president.
What inspired Dr. Turpin, now president of the University of Alberta, and his collaborators was the growing sense that the number of school presidents being terminated by their boards of governors was on the rise. Their analysis ran from 1840 until 2011, and it showed that presidents were increasingly spending much less time in office than was historically the case.
The results were derived from two lists of data: One was provided by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and included 102 university-accredited institutions across the country; the second was a much more select group used by Maclean's magazine in its annual rankings. It comprised 49 of the bigger, more high-profile schools.
Looking at the Maclean's list, the authors found that between 2006 and 2010, 12 presidents resigned their positions after having served less than three years in office; that compared to just four presidents in the preceding five-year period. The study observed that the number of presidents with relatively little experience (zero to two years) in the position was also growing.
In further examining the phenomenon of early departures, the authors considered an analysis of the same issue in the United States. That analysis suggested there were six common themes connected to most presidential breakdowns: ethical lapses, poor interpersonal skills, inability to lead key constituencies, difficulty to adapting to institutional culture, failure to meet business objectives and board shortcomings. It was noted that this all-encompassing list likely included the reasons many Canadian presidents were being fired or resigning early as well.
Dr. Turpin's study takes on fresh relevance in light of the debacle unfolding at the University of British Columbia, where Arvind Gupta resigned as president last summer after one year on the job.
His departure has blown up into a full-scale debacle, with Dr. Gupta this week breaking his silence about why he left. He said he felt compelled to defend himself after the school inadvertently released private 2015 e-mail correspondence between him and then-board chair John Montalbano – a chain of messages that revealed a litany of concerns the school's overseers had about their new president.
What seems clear now is that many in UBC's administrative ranks, including deans, were uncomfortable with the transformative agenda Dr. Gupta was intent on implementing.
What is also evident is that the new president, who had little university executive experience to draw upon, lacked the skills that are crucial when attempting to shatter the status quo and realign priorities at an institution as change-resistant as a university.
In his desire to do what he fervently believed was best for the student, Dr. Gupta was blinded to the angst his plan was inciting among powerful elements of the administration. In their study, Dr. Turpin and his colleagues discussed the skill set they believe a modern university president must possess.
"The role of the university president has shifted from that of primarily an academic leader to a position combining academic leadership and the responsibilities of leading a large, complex, multi-stakeholder business enterprise," the authors wrote.
They suggested that the president's job now resembles something closer to a chief executive officer. "As a result, university presidents now require professional management skills and experience in addition to those developed in their academic career."
(The analysis also noted that presidential search committees are large, often cumbersome bodies made up of a number of different constituencies but almost always lacking anyone with experience serving as a university president.)
It's clear Arvind Gupta lacked some of the skills fundamental to the arsenal of any modern-day president. Even he would likely admit that. But they are also ones he likely could have developed with the proper support. His lack of senior administrative experience was a critical factor in his demise; it wasn't so much that his vision was wrong, but rather that he was missing the deftness and political astuteness that is critical when attempting to usher in bold reform.
Ultimately, Dr. Gupta found himself in a high-stakes showdown with a board that held all the cards, in a game he was destined to lose. It seems to be a drama playing out with increasing frequency on campuses across the country.