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The selection committee set up to find a successor to principal Daniel Woolf at Queen's University has 19 members. If anybody feels that's not enough to represent all the interests involved, they may be reassured by the fact the head of the equity and human rights office is one of three advisory members helping to scrutinize the choices.

I have been intrigued by the search for university principals since the late 1960s, when as an alumni magazine editor I followed the selection at my own university, McGill, and other North American universities. Over the years, it seems to me that the committees have become bigger and the chances of the final candidate being selected from within the university have become smaller.

Committees are strange beasts. Research suggests that generally you want around seven people, give or take a couple. Gerald Walsh, a Halifax-based executive recruiter who works extensively with municipalities, recommends committees of four or five people for selecting chief administrative officers (CAOs). But at universities, committees for senior ranks typically involve 12 to 15 people, to represent all constituencies.

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I admire the municipal CAOs I have met, who tend to be exceptionally gifted, but university principals are even more singular. Back in the 1970s, university folk were complaining that the criteria for the post could only be filled by Jesus Christ or Superman. The job is even tougher these days.

Indeed, to some extent it has become two jobs, a new model emerging of the principal, still the ultimate boss, handling relations with government, foundations and alumni – in other words, chief fundraiser – and other external activities. Meanwhile, a provost handles internal issues such as budget, administration and faculty. So a team, a Mr./Ms. Outside and Mr./Ms. Inside, because the job is too demanding for one person.

Julian Barling, a professor of leadership at Queen's University, says selection committees suffer from tension between democracy and effectiveness. In the large selection committees he has sat on, one or two people became dominant. Peggy Cunningham, former dean of business at Dalhousie University, says the research suggests that when selection committees are too large, they quickly fall into group-think, or polarize between two candidates and end up choosing the third on the list in a compromise.

That showed up in two cases I followed closely.

In 1970, McGill's selection committee was dominated by graduate studies and research dean, Robert Bell, who near the end was asked to step out of the room and was selected by his colleagues as the new principal. One committee member angrily felt it had been a deliberate effort by Prof. Bell to knock down possible candidates but others were just impressed by his savvy. He proved a good, two-term leader.

In 1978, the University of Toronto's committee was split between two successful principals of other Ontario universities – Donald Forster and George Connell – and, after months of deadlock, chose a compromise, James Ham, dean of graduate studies at their university, without even interviewing him, a rather basic step ordinarily.

Executive search firms assist in the search and can play a dominant role. Prof. Cunningham says some are excellent while others can be quite mediocre – many times she has been a reference for the person selected to be dean elsewhere and was never called. She says the flaws of large committees can be countered by initially having members work alone, seeking out possible candidates, to get a wider range of alternatives and mitigate against early polarization.

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As with so many institutions, universities tend to pick a leader who is strikingly different from the last person, compensating for his or her weaknesses. Prof. Barling says that's a big mistake, looking to redress the past rather than address the future.

The last three principals at Queen's – excluding Tom Williams, who filled in for a year after Karen Hitchcock resigned suddenly – were chosen from outside by selection committees, quite different from the university's previous tradition. The last four at McGill have come from outside. That is common at many universities, a notable exception being University of Toronto.

David Turpin missed out on the ultimate promotion at Queen's when he was vice-principal but has served effectively at the helm of the University of Victoria and University of Alberta. Patrick Deane was a vice-principal at Queen's but to step up had to go to McMaster. There are many other examples of such hopscotching. "It's almost as if to be principal, you have to go elsewhere," notes Prof. Barling.

Picking a principal is a huge responsibility. But starting with a large committee and a desire to scour the world for candidates rather than fairly evaluate what's close to hand could use some rethinking.

Cannonballs

  • Donald Trump is an unusual U.S. President, but he is not the only egocentric, temperamental boss in the world. If you have such a superior, learn from Rex Tillerson and others who have been bumped out of the White House orbit: You are unlikely to save that person from their own worse instincts, no matter how noble that may seem. Get out early. You’ll be much happier, as President Trump noted about his secretary of state, after firing him not-so-nobly on Twitter.
     
  • Diversity makes things harder, and that’s why we should prize it, say the University of Toronto’s András Tilcsik and derivatives trader Chris Clearfield. It’s like a speed bump, making us work harder, elbowing us out of our comfort zone and making it harder to barrel ahead without thinking.
     
  • In a similar vein, entrepreneur Seth Godin asks how many decisions or commitments would end up more positively if you had a five-minute snooze button on hand – waiting 300 seconds before plunging ahead?
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