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The tough job of university rector in Quebec

There’s been a substantial turnover of university leaders recently in Quebec, and finding replacements has sometimes proven difficult.

By JEAN-FRANÇOIS VENNE | JUL 05 2017

No fewer than nine university institutions in Quebec have seen their executive head depart since 2015. Several of the rectors – the term used for university presidents in Quebec – left their posts after a single mandate or partway through one. Is it that tough being a rector?

The rectors of École nationale d’administration publique (ENAP), Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) and Université du Québec à Chicoutimi (UQAC) all declined the opportunity to seek a second mandate. In 2015, Nadia Ghazzali, the former rector of Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR), resigned in the middle of her mandate after being severely censored in a provincial auditor general’s report.

The situation comes as no surprise to Marc-Urbain Proulx, professor of regional economics at UQAC and a former candidate for university rector. “In order to secure a second mandate, a rector needs to be popular at every level of the university,” said Dr. Proulx. “The problem is that rectors have had to deal with all manner of cutbacks over the last few years, and they often find themselves having to say no to professors, students and everyone in between.”

For the same reason, universities have begun looking for a different profile of leader. “They’re no longer asking rectors to be visionaries, but rather managers whose sole mission is to avoid deficits,” said Dr. Proulx. “More and more, the rector’s job is to focus on day-to-day management. Perennial underfunding has changed the nature of their work.”

The search for excellence

Is that what explains the fact that so many establishments have had difficulty finding a new rector? ENAP and INRS, for example, are both being managed by an interim director. “Selection processes are a constant,” explains Valérie Reuillard, the communications director for the Université du Québec network, of which both institutions are a part. “Our selection committees get the applications and short-list them before polling the institution’s faculty. So far, not a single candidate has obtained its approval!”

At UQAM, no winner emerged from a vote for rector held in May 2017. Simply put, no candidate rallied enough support to secure the appointment, so the call for nominations will resume in the fall. At UQAC, the search for a new rector turned into a bitter dispute. At one point this past February, the faculty union went so far as to demand that the selection committee be changed, due to loss of confidence. Nicole Bouchard, a professor in the university’s department of humanities and social sciences, was eventually chosen by the selection committee and her appointment was made official by the government on June 21.

Unlike in the rest of Canada, the process to select and appoint a rector is entirely open in Quebec, which could explain the complexity of renewing mandates. This is the opinion of Yvan Allaire, executive chair of the Institute for Governance of Private and Public Organizations, an initiative of HEC Montréal and Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business. The possibility of a candidate for rector being defeated in a very public vote has discouraged a good many people from outside the institution from applying, he said.

Dr. Allaire added that this way of doing things has the effect of entrenching the status quo. “It’s hard for a candidate to propose massive changes because the very profs, students and administrators who elected him or her end up defending their own interests,” he explained.

In 2017, the institute decided that faculty unions and students should be consulted beforehand and help define the ideal candidate profile, but that the new rector should be confidentially appointed by a board of directors consisting chiefly of independent directors. “The faculty union refused point blank,” said Dr. Allaire. “They feared a loss of control and the infiltration of private business into the board of directors.”

Underpaid and unappreciated

Rector’s salaries in the Université du Québec network are another concern. With McGill and Concordia principals earning total compensations of over $400,000, their UQ counterparts take home less than $200,000, which is barely more than some professors’ salaries. “For me, becoming the rector of UQTR entailed a rather substantial drop in salary,” admitted Daniel McMahon, former president and CEO of Quebec’s order of chartered professional accountants, who was appointed rector in January 2016. “I do it out of dedication. However, there’s a lot of competition out there to attract the best candidates, and the compensation package remains a major issue.”

Added to that is the fact that universities and their rectors draw little sympathy from Quebec’s general population. The printemps érable (maple spring) protests clearly demonstrated that many people view these establishments as elitist bastions.

“People just don’t know what it takes to be a rector,” said Dr. McMahon. “At UQTR, I manage the region’s third-largest employer, with some 1,800 employees. I lead an institution that trains students, does research and drives business for the regional community, all in a setting where it is very difficult to make budget forecasts even in the medium term. It’s not that simple. We have to try and explain it better to people.”

Missionary zeal

Despite all the issues, Dr. McMahon remains enthusiastic about his work, as does Sophie D’Amours, Université Laval’s new rector since June 1. “I have a deep attachment to Université Laval. That’s where I went to university and where my sons are right now,” she said. “I had the feeling that I truly understood my alma mater’s issues and challenges, and I definitely felt supported by the campus.”

Sophie D’Amours.

At Université Laval, the rector is voted in by an electoral college of 145 people, including the boards of research, academics and student affairs, as well as the board of directors and the university senate. “The process involves lengthy campaigns, debates among candidates and discussions with members of the academic community,” she explained. “It’s all quite tedious, but it does identify the salient issues, the areas of agreement and the points of contention.”

Her personal project is Chantiers d’avenir (programs for the future), a strategic exercise to develop a more interdisciplinary platform for students and to stimulate their desire to venture out and work to resolve social issues. Dr. D’Amours muses about programs in which the content has been defined by specific issues rather than by the discipline involved. Her example is sustainable mobility. Working in that field requires expertise in urban planning, transportation, economics, lifestyles, demographics and more. Its new leaders would definitely require interdisciplinary training.

“We’re starting out with a blank page on which we can imagine the training paradigm of the future, all in light of the digital revolution, of internationalization and of social expectations,” said Dr. D’Amours, who so far shows little fear in the face of her sometimes thankless and constantly demanding appointment.

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