Increasing Failure Rates in Canadian University Leadership: Causes and Solutions

Increasing Failure Rates in Canadian University Leadership: Causes and Solutions

Ross H. Paul
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0672-0.ch004
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There is growing concern in Canada about the increasing failure rate of university presidents. Institutional boards invest significant time and money into presidential recruitment, engaging professional search firms and consulting with a vast array of stakeholders. Given this intense scrutiny, why are more and more Canadian university leaders failing? What changes can be made to reverse this trend? Based on his almost 20 years of experience as university president, a longitudinal study of presidencies in 47 Canadian universities and other current research, the author provides an overview of the issues involved, explores them in more detail through mini-case studies and identifies “institutional fit” as the key variable in presidential success. The chapter concludes with suggestions to Boards and prospective presidential candidates as to how they can increase the likelihood of success in such crucial appointments.
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The role of Canadian university president has evolved considerably in recent years. In the early 1960’s, especially in smaller and regional universities, a university president typically “presided over the academy” (Paul, 2015, p. 11). He (and it was almost always a “he”) spent most of the time on campus, knew most of the faculty and many of the students and probably taught a course or two. Only about three per cent of the age cohort (18–22 years of age) attended university and, except perhaps in the largest urban institutions, most students were full-time and living on campus. Universities were much smaller and they really were ivory towers, significantly displaced from the communities in which they were located, and seldom in the news. A university president of that era was more apt to have moral than ascribed line authority and faced significantly fewer challenges than are the norm for today’s leaders2.

Contrast that with today’s much larger and more publicly accountable university. No longer elite institutions for the privileged few, they endeavour to meet the aspirations of the majority of the age cohort for enhanced employment opportunities and are seen as prominent instruments of economic development by local, provincial, and national governments. Research has displaced teaching at the centre of the university’s mission and there is increased competition for scarce resources, both human and physical.

The impact on the expectations for and responsibilities of the university president are profound. Now CEO of large and complex organizations, today’s president is expected to be a fund-raiser, negotiator, marketer, government and community relations expert, financial wizard and the university’s face to a wide and diverse array of stakeholders. At the same time, he or she must continue to have academic credibility with the faculty and to know how to work effectively through the collaborative and sometimes cumbersome instruments of academic governance and to deal with increasingly demanding and often impatient boards of governors. Faculty now are almost always unionized and students have a much greater sense of entitlement as fee payers than did their earlier, more privileged counterparts. Small wonder that there is little time left over to “preside over the academy.”

It would be easy to conclude that, given the extent of these changes and the demands they make of institutional leaders, the presidential selection processes would be significantly different from those of an earlier era. This is categorically not the case.

Notwithstanding the growing demands on presidents to lead and manage across a complex array of issues and for a plethora of stakeholders, there are few significant signs of change in the ways they are recruited and (not) trained (Paul, 2015, p. ix)

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