The academic sector is vital to the social, cultural and economic life of our Canadian communities. As such, the leadership of our universities and colleges directly affects the ability of our institutions to contribute to the social and economic development of our region. But with the shift toward faculty votes of non-confidence in the institution’s leaders, truncated presidential terms and shrinking candidate pools, it's time to reconsider how we view leadership and succession in our universities and to talk about how we shift the curve.

We invited academic leaders from across Atlantic Canada to participate in a series of roundtable discussions with two of our Academic Advisory Council members – Dr. Peter George, president emeritus of McMaster University and Dr. Ross Paul, former president of Laurentian and Windsor Universities. Our conversations examined current trends and perceptions about the role of leadership, particularly at the most senior levels in universities. Our conversations identified common challenges in leadership succession and the beginnings of the answer to the way forward.

The candidate pool for academic administrative leadership positions has always been small and now it is shrinking. This change emerges from the common assumption used to recruit our universities' top administrative positions—specifically, the assumption that a strong academic will make a strong leader. Or, perhaps more accurately, the assumption that no one but a strong academic could be a credible leader in a university. While there are some recent examples of university presidents being appointed from outside the sector, as Ross Paul pointed out in his recent book, Leadership under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President, over 85% of senior leadership appointments in Canadian universities are candidates from other Canadian universities.

Limiting the candidate pool to the sector is not a problem in and of itself; but it is creating a challenge in that the size of the pool is shrinking and there has not been a deliberate effort to cultivate leadership capability within the shrinking pool of traditional candidates. With government cutbacks and fiscal constraint in the early 1990’s, the number of new hires to the academy was suddenly and severely limited, creating a gap in the spectrum of progressively advancing academics. Fast-forward 20 years and the number of potential academic leadership candidates with the traditionally-defined 15 to 20 years of progressive experience, strong record of scholarship and leadership, talent is much smaller than it was even five years earlier. And because there was a gap in hiring, we also have a ‘bubble’ of experienced academic administrative leaders that have reached the end of their careers at the same time. In Atlantic Canada for example, almost all the Vice President Academic posts have been filled with first term appointments within the past three years. A presidential candidate pool we would have assumed, five years ago, was fifteen people or more has now been greatly diminished.

Historically, boards, search committees and stakeholders have assumed the best candidates should come from outside their institution. For example, recent experience shows that 90% of Canadian university presidents are external appointments. Whether this trend is attributable to a common intention to ‘bring fresh ideas’ to the university or simply the appeal of a candidate who brings no local ‘baggage,’ the bottom line is that universities have looked to the external market as the primary source of candidates.

Universities are structured to allow academic freedom; perhaps it’s not surprising that leadership in a university is not seen as important or even valuable. Witness the challenges that universities face when they invite candidates for Director, Chair and decanal roles – the typical roles in which formative leadership development occurs. Couple this indifference to leadership with the assumption that outside is where the candidates are anyway, and it's easy to see why universities have done little to deliberately develop leadership capacity inside the institution. Unlike the corporate world where leadership capacity development now tops the list of important strategic initiatives, universities continue to follow the ‘cult of amateurism’ assuming that leadership can be learned in the job.

As universities across the country continue to redefine their mandates and strive to enhance their already impactful value proposition, now is perhaps the most important time to have strong leadership in our universities. In light of the challenges of a shrinking candidate pool, there are really only two options – expanding the pool outside the boundaries of the academy and enhancing the leadership capacity within. While the former will undoubtedly be pursued to some extent, it is the latter strategy that holds the most promise. Enhancing leadership capacity within the university sector needs to start with shifting opinions about the role and the value of leadership in the institution. Current leaders need to foster a dialogue about what leadership is, why leadership is important and the skills and experience that build leadership capability.

This shift in perception won’t be easy to achieve; but it stands the best chance of succeeding if today’s leaders, who have the persuasive benefit of credibility, speak up. Consider this an urgent call to action. Anna Stuart is a Vice President at Knightsbridge Robertson Surrette, Atlantic Canada’s leading human capital solutions firm.

This white paper represents the collective opinions expressed during a series of academic roundtable discussions held in 2012, hosted by Anna Stuart, Dr. Ross Paul and Dr. Peter George.

Anna Stuart
Anna Stuart , MBA, FCPA, FCMA, FCMC
Managing Partner
Anna is a Partner and Vice President with KBRS. She leads the firm's academic and public sector executive search assignments and leadership solutions practices. Anna’s consultative style and pragmatic approach has delivered exceptional results to a range of organizations and leaders across the region.