UBC president's resignation latest in trend of failed university leaders, says expert

08/21/2015

Over past decade, 18 Canadian university presidents resigned or were fired before completing contracts

Daybreak South, CBC News

The resignation of former UBC President Arvind Gupta is just the latest in what one researcher is calling a global trend among universities.

In Canada alone, 18 presidents either resigned or were fired before the end of their contract during the last 10 years, according to Julie Cafley, vice-president at the Public Policy Forum.

Cafley served as chief of staff to two presidents at the University of Ottawa before going on to complete her PhD thesis on Canadian university presidents with unfinished mandates.

Read Cafley's thesis here

Lack of management experience

She said when it comes to selecting a president, university boards have a positive bias toward those who come from academia, but many of those individuals lack a background in management and have minimal experience governing large organizations with enormous budgets and widespread community impact.

As a result, they are often ill-equipped to balance the conflicting interests of stakeholders, who include students, faculty, donors, administration, the governing board and provincial governments, she said.

"It's a really mixed bag of leaders that come together and really have a say at the table."

In addition, as heads of such enormous institutions, university presidents face a great deal of scrutiny, both internally and externally, she said.

"Faculty members are there to question. They're there to push the envelope," said Cafley.

"One of the things that's very hard to define is a successful university presidency, because many presidents are quickly criticized and do have a difficult time. That's part of the process of being a university president."

Need support of governing boards

"There's a real need for full engagement from the board, not just during the hiring but in the transition," which can sometimes last years, Cafley said.

To illustrate how important this kind of solidarity is, Cafley used the example of the Dalhousie University dental students crisis.

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Dalhousie president Richard Florizone was under fire for his handling of the Facebook scandal, until the university's board of governors came out unanimously with a statement in support of his decisions. 

After that, public criticism shifted away from the president, she said.

When it comes to completing a full term, internal presidents who have climbed the ranks experience a higher rate of success than presidents who are brought in from other institutions, she said.

"University cultures are so unique and so different that there's really a need to support those leaders through those transitions."

To hear the full interview with Julie Cafley, listen to the audio labelled: Why more and more university presidents are failing to complete their contracts.