Appointment of University Presidents

A couple of days after I finally launched this blog, controversy erupted at a university just down the road from mine: questions were being raised at Saint Mary’s University around the process for selecting a new President.  The faculty union is pursuing a grievance, based on past practice “of having three candidates on a shortlist make presentations to the school’s academic committee,” a practice supported by language in the Collective Agreement that, as one report notes, implies multiple candidates will be made known to members of the university.

My reaction? Déjà vu all over again.  When Dalhousie’s current president was appointed, similar concerns were raised by the Dalhousie Faculty Association: “In a statement provided to the Gazette, Dal Faculty Association (DFA) president David Mensink says that the DFA is concerned by the absence of the customary consultation with the larger university community.”  These concerns coincide with related discussions about two other trends at that level of university governance: the appointment of presidents with significant non-academic backgrounds, and significant evidence (gathered by David Turpin) that presidents now have much shorter terms of office, a trend that Turpin associates partly with external appointments.

Appointment processes are of course a key focus of faculty associations, from entry-level positions on up. The CAUT Policy on Governance includes the principle, “The President and the Vice-President (Academic) should be appointed with the approval of both the Senate and the Board in an open and transparent process. Such appointments should be made on the recommendation of search committees which should include a substantial number of academic staff as well as student and support staff representation.”  The Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada does not concern itself with such matters, and provincial legislation on universities varies widely.

In an addendum to his University Affairs piece on recent trends in the selection of university presidents, Leo Charbonneau notes that presidential appointment processes are more open “at Quebec’s francophone universities, where the search process is public and the candidates are even expected to ‘sell’ themselves to the university community”–there’s a likely reason for that. In France, at universities such as the Sorbonne Nouvelle (Paris III), university presidents are elected by an elected governing council that is, under a 22 July 2013 law, about two-thirds faculty and students.

As Turpin notes, changes in university financial models as well as variation in governing boards are among the factors putting pressure both on presidents and on the appointment process for that key office. We might add as well that the trend towards hiring consultants for external search processes in anglophone Canadian universities itself subordinates individual university traditions, and contributes to the shift towards corporate-influenced processes in Canada’s higher-education system.

Addendum (February 4th):  I did not know when I wrote the above post that the sole candidate for President at Saint Mary’s University is a colleague, the Dean of my faculty–this news has just become public.  The above is not in any way a comment on the suitability of particular candidates but rather concerns itself with governance processes at Canadian universities, so it is being left unchanged (well, except for the addition of this addendum…).


5 thoughts on “Appointment of University Presidents

  1. The problem with “open and transparent” is that if it is too open it could discourage candidates from applying. Those campuses that require a shortlist of candidates to be made public (for instance) are in effect sending a “stay away” message to any candidate whose standing might be damaged at their current campus if it were known that they were open to switching to another university.


  2. True, that’s the usual line, and consulting firms that conduct external searches are typically very concerned about this. But what kind of evidence do we have that this prevents viable candidates from applying? Since the processes were previously “open and transparent” at a number of Canadian anglophone universities and continue to be very open and even democratic at French and Canadian francophone universities, the evidence doesn’t seem to point that way, at least not decisively. We might speculate that the shift towards external and occasionally non-academic presidents creates additional pressure on that score (an internal candidate need not fear at all the sort of “damage” you mention), but it isn’t clear if any gains from that broader search are reason enough to make the process more opaque than it has traditionally been.


  3. Oh, of course that reason is sometimes cited. But there are lots of other reasons that people don’t apply for these jobs, and external candidates have even more reasons (not wanting to move family, e.g.). But even if someone does the work and finds evidence that universities with open processes are having significant trouble finding good candidates and universities with closed processes are not, we’re still left with the question of whether the gain in the size of the candidate pool is worth stirring the institutional pot, so to speak. Do appointees selected openly find it easier to build faculty confidence in their presidency, for instance? Do candidates get a better sense of the challenges they might face by talking to a broader swathe of the university? Does a university get more useful information because of a broader conversation about candidates’ records? There are potential benefits to open processes that *may* outweigh the benefits of getting a larger set of applicants. We just don’t know.


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