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Margin Notes

A very public process for choosing a president

Université de Montréal held a vote yesterday to help choose its next rector. What interests me more than the winner is the fact that such a public poll even took place.


Université de Montréal held a vote yesterday, Sept. 21, to help choose its next rector (equal to a president at English-speaking universities). The results of the poll haven’t yet been announced as I write this, but what interests me more than the winner is the fact that such a public vote even took place.

As many of you may know, at English-speaking universities in Canada, except in extremely rare cases, nobody outside of the actual hiring committee knows who will be chosen until that name is announced to the expectant community. Neither are the names of the unsuccessful candidates ever divulged.

At Quebec’s francophone universities, the process is much more public. I’m simplifying a bit, but at Université de Montréal it begins with the creation of a “consultation committee” which establishes a list of criteria for potential candidates. Then there is a call for nominees and these nominees are asked if they wish to participate by submitting their résumés, explaining their vision for the university and participating in one or more public debates.

Eleven people agreed to have their names put forward, and these names were announced at the end of August (the announcement is here, in French). Seven are already working at Université de Montréal, while the other four are involved in either the academic research or higher education sectors.

The next step, which occurred yesterday, was a scrutin indicatif or essentially a straw poll by the Assemblée universitaire (university senate). The consultation committee will now interview the candidates, deliberate and make its recommendation to the university’s board of directors. The whole process must wrap up before May 2010.

But here’s an interesting twist: the board can indeed choose one or other of the committee’s recommended candidates, or nominate somebody else entirely. So, while this is generally a more open process than at anglophone universities, the decision ultimately rests entirely with the board. (The process is explained here, again in French.)

I can’t say that I find this process much of an improvement over the very confidential nature of the hiring process used in the rest of Canada. I also wonder if such an open process might dissuade some very good candidates from coming forward. After all, who wants to take the risk of being a candidate in such a public way if the result may be an equally public, and embarrassing, rejection? And, for the candidates from other institutions, what might they be signaling to their current institution if they put their name forward as a candidate?

Consider this: it is relatively uncommon for a rector at a francophone university in Quebec to be chosen from outside that particular university community, while at English-speaking institutions it is equally rare for a candidate to be chosen from within that university. What process, you could ask, is better for attracting new talent?

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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