A review of Ross Paul's Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President.

Ross Paul’s new book on university presidents provides a well researched account of the various roles, responsibilities, challenges and opportunities university leaders face in today’s evolving post-secondary educational sector. Paul is well positioned to tackle this subject given his own experience as president of two Canadian universities, and he draws on this experience as well as on the collective insights of 11 seasoned presidents he interviewed.

The book is divided into four sections, with the first covering Canadian universities and their leadership. Paul’s particular focus on the Canadian landscape provides an important view since the evolution of the Canadian post-secondary sector is somewhat different than the models in countries such as the United States, Britain and Australia. One of these differences is Canada, the oversight and delivery of education — including post-secondary education — is a provincial responsibility. It is argued in the book that being the only federated country without a national office or minister of education could have a significant downside in terms of international profile or promotion as well as overall coordination of post-secondary education. Paul suggests that the upside may be the protection of universities against a national intervention in their mandate, organization and governance that has occurred in Britain and Australia.

The complicated selection process of university presidents is discussed along with the changing roles and expectations of university leaders. Paul writes that university presidents were traditionally seen as the academic leaders of their organizations, but that the shift is now more toward a CEO-style of leadership, which has an impact on the final selection of new presidents. Those who can operate effectively in the external milieu and can balance the numerous internal and external demands of the job are now being appointed. He provides data to show that more of the research universities are selecting presidents from professional programs such as law, medicine and engineering, most presidents are Canadian and more than 90 percent are recruited from outside of their organizations.

Paul writes that university presidents were traditionally seen as the academic leaders of their organizations, but that the shift is now more toward a CEO-style of leadership, which has an impact on the final selection of new presidents.

The second section focuses on academic leadership and organizational culture. Paul notes that a university president’s job can be one of the most difficult leadership positions in society given its collegial academic culture and multiple stakeholders. University management is often compared to “herding cats” since “there is a high tolerance for autonomous activity and even eccentricity in the collegial culture.” Paul discusses two types of leadership within the academy — transactional and transformative — and makes a case that most universities want transactional leaders. Transformative leaders, who can motivate and stimulate followers to achieve extraordinary outcomes, are usually sought in times of institutional crisis or when a new mission or mandate is sought.

Regardless of the leadership type, Paul and the other experienced presidents he interviewed agree that the most important role of a president is to articulate the mission, vision and long-term objectives of the institution, otherwise known as managing the “big picture.” This requires strategic leadership, although the book presents varying points of view on the effectiveness of formal strategic planning to achieve this goal.

The third section discusses some of the key issues facing today’s presidents, including student access, the quality of the undergraduate experience, international outreach, financial issues, governance and accountability as well as institutional autonomy. Each is tackled through data and candid thoughts and experiences from the presidents who were interviewed. The undergraduate experience at universities is currently receiving significant media attention so Paul’s account of the underlying issues is timely. The role of the president in articulating the need for increased financial investment — whether through tuition increases or government grants — is also treated in detail with the importance of community and government relations front and centre in terms of the president’s responsibilities.

The fourth and final section discusses the difference a president can make to an institution and the seven major issues facing today’s presidents. Interestingly, those interviewed had different views on the impact a particular president can make ranging from “not much” to “profound.” The long history and resilience of an institution can provide significant resistance to sustained change although those interviewed agreed that the provision of a climate where talented people can reach their potentials is a fundamental legacy of a presidency. Creating this, in the midst of major issues of funding, quality and pressures for differentiation calls on leadership, which Paul concludes does not have one best profile, style or approach.

Although the obvious primary audience would be current or aspiring presidents, the book is highly relevant to university boards of governors, provincial education ministries and other agencies that interact with universities and thus their leaders. I would even go so far as to recommend it to faculty and staff members since I sometimes wonder if there is an understanding of the various hats a president wears even to those whom she or he serves.

Overall, the book provides an excellent inside account of a Canadian university presidency. Although the challenges of the role can be viewed as daunting, what is most impressive perhaps is that Paul and the presidents he interviewed all clearly enjoyed the privilege of serving as leaders of their institutions.

Ross Paul. Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011.

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