“Turfed,” “let go abruptly,” “resigned” or “quit” – the language may change but the scenario itself is discouragingly frequent. In the past decade alone, at least 18 Canadian university presidents have had their first mandates cut short. This is costly and unfortunate for all concerned. And my research suggests it’s largely avoidable.
In the course of completing my PhD studies for my thesis (Leadership in Higher Education: Case Study Research of Canadian University Presidents with Unfinished Mandates), I spent time with six of the affected leaders, exploring what factors led to these failures and what changes could be made to reduce their frequency.
The presidents represent diverse disciplines and institution types, but share similar backgrounds. All are academics from outside the universities that appointed them. Evenly split female and male, they represent a common demographic in terms of age, race, level of education and experience. Each president lived a unique experience and yet their stories share many common patterns.
In all, six areas of concern emerged as having played a role in undermining their ability to lead. These include board governance and communication; trust within the executive team; mentorship; the role of the predecessor; the effectiveness of the transitional process; and issues relating to diversity.
Each of the presidents with unfinished mandates whom I interviewed raised significant concerns regarding board governance and communication. All reflected extensively on their troubled relationships with their board of governors and, in particular, the board chair. In a few cases, a change of chair early in their mandate made the board-presidential relationship more difficult. Some admitted they should have made board relations a larger priority, and wished they’d invested more time in the relationship. But, as an example of why they hadn’t, one president believed that calling on the board too often might be seen as a sign of weakness.
The informants shared significant concerns about multiple aspects of board governance. An overall lack of good governance was apparent in each of these cases of unfinished mandates. All too often, the board implemented a governance review only after the unfinished mandate. Other concerns related to ethical issues and governors’ ignorance about their roles and a misunderstanding of the academic enterprise.
Some presidents also raised concerns regarding the board’s role in the hiring process and the governors’ subsequent lack of engagement during the transition. The involvement of executive search firms sometimes created ambiguity, with some informants feeling that the board had been too distant from the hiring process. More troubling, all of the presidents I interviewed noted their boards’ failure to disclose important issues – from financial concerns and union relations to impending legal situations – in advance of the hiring.
Mistrust in executive ranks
Closely related to the theme of board governance, all six presidents shared a deep level of mistrust with at least one member of their executive team – the provost, the secretary, vice-president finance or vice-president external. For many reasons, however, including pressure from the board in some cases, the presidents did not feel comfortable or confident making a change within their executive team. In one case, a member of the executive was himself an unsuccessful applicant for the president’s job, which obviously created tension. Other challenges included a particularly close relationship between a vice-president and the board and important communication that intentionally excluded the president.
Some informants shared a desire for mentorship or further leadership support in their role, reflecting on how lonely it can be at the top. In retrospect, some would have appreciated a wise person inside the institution with whom they could have safely shared their challenges, concerns and questions regarding issues such as university culture or their role. A colleague, another university president or a former president could also offer this mentorship support, they said.
In a similar vein, each of the presidents shared an unhelpful or non-existent relationship with their predecessor. In one situation, the past president stayed on campus and acted somewhat as a “closet president.” Many of those I interviewed with unfinished mandates were surprised by the unwillingness of their predecessor to share insights and key transitional information regarding the institution. Having come from outside the universities they subsequently led, such insider context would have been valuable.
Another significant common challenge relates to leadership diversity. Just 19 percent of Canadian university presidents are women, and yet the last six out of eight leaders to have their mandates cut short have been female. Other studies have explored this phenomenon. Viewed as strong relationship builders, women are often sought out within times of crisis and brought into an organization at risk. This may help to explain these tragic numbers.
Interestingly, even the male presidents reflected on the “old boys’ network” within Canadian universities – at the board and executive levels in particular. In fact, when one female president questioned her board chair on the board’s lack of diversity, she was told that there was no need for worry as they had a female president. My interviewees underlined the need to make proactive changes to ensure that support is given to diverse leaders in their roles as institutional heads.
All of them feel scarred by the process of having been let go, to a greater or lesser degree.
“I’m always aware of it. I mean it’s now part of my DNA – when there’s an unfinished mandate, it all comes right back,” said one former president. “It’s like a scar … After a while it’s just there, but if you have to look at it and say ‘hey, that happened because there was an accident.’”
Canada faces a shrinking pool of candidates interested in becoming a university president. These leaders are chosen based on an engaged and inclusive process, involving many campus stakeholders. Canadian university leaders, policymakers, board members and executive search firm leaders have an obligation to take a critical look how they can do better.
Seven Canadian university presidents are beginning their mandates this year. In light of my research findings, I am concerned and apprehensive as they start their presidential tenures.
As some Canadian university presidents with unfinished mandates observed, it’s critically important to use the transition period to solidify relationships in pursuit of success. Strong board governance, relationships of trust, support to leaders, and a focused strategy for diversity and leadership are essential components of this strategy required for change.
Julie Cafley is vice-president at the Public Policy Forum and recently completed her PhD in educational leadership at the University of Ottawa.