The Impacts of Leadership Shakeups at Large Public Research Universities: Lessons for UBC

This entry is also available at Inside Higher Ed.

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Further to my 9 August Inside Higher Ed post on unexpected leadership change at the University of British Columbia (UBC), I was recently asked by Lori Culbert of the Vancouver Sun to comment on the possible impacts of this type of change at a large public research university in North America. Her article — ‘UBC: A leadership shakeup can affect planning, funding and reputation’ — was just posted tonight. I’ll add it to the long list of articles, blog entries, etc., I’m compiling on a new Facebook page (UBC Futures) that is an archive of sorts of everything (regardless of perspective) written about what has become a full-blown crisis. UBC Futures is modeled on the BadgerFutures: Resources for Debates about UW-Madison’s Future Facebook page, which has been operating since 2011.

Inevitably my comments to the Vancouver Sun were edited down to fit the format of a newspaper story. Given this I’d like to flag, here, what I said to Ms. Culbert. I’m partly doing this as UBC’s leadership has been remarkably stable since the era I attended it back in the late 1970s and first half of the 1980s. I also worked at UBC from 1989-1992, and spent one year (1995-96) at UBC as a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow (in part of the Strangway era). All I recall is leadership stability, as do most of the subsequent Piper and then Toope era employees and students. In contrast, I’ve been through a senior leadership roller coaster ride at one UBC peer (the University of Wisconsin-Madison), and learned much about UBC’s other peers down here in the U.S. via engagement with colleagues (faculty and senior administrators), so I’m keen to outline my view of the possible impacts of unexpected leadership change in large public research universities. As I noted in my 9 August entry, “[M]ake no mistake, this type of unexpected leadership transition is hugely significant.” But in what ways?

As I told Ms. Culbert of the Vancouver Sun, the impact of unexpected and early senior leadership changes typically generate a mix of internal and external impacts, though these impacts will obviously vary from institution to institution.  But it’s very important to be open, honest, and realistic about the impacts.

IMG_0907First, internal resource impacts typically include: (a) the direct financial costs of an unexpected presidential search, typically equivalent to a full year of presidential salary; (b) the indirect financial costs of an unexpected presidential search (primarily the time allocated by a large number of faculty, staff, students and sometimes alum to the search process); (c) major yet diffuse institution-wide opportunity costs given widespread speculation, dialogue & debate about the causes of the leadership change as well as the implications of the change; (d) delays in fund raising and the implementation of major capital campaigns, typically led by the president (or equivalent); and (e) delays of high profile and often high impact strategic initiatives (e.g., funding of a new chemistry building or establishment of a new school).

Second, there are a variety of internal organizational and governance impacts, including: (a) delays of key senior leadership hiring (typically at the vice-provost/vice-president level) until the new president is in place; (b) the creation of 1-3 years of uncertainty about the role of the provost and the nature of the president-provost relationship, which in most in universities is strategically coordinated (including with respect when the provost hiring cycle takes place); (c) delays in the formation of key relationships with deans and other senior staff; (d) delays in strategic planning at the university-wide scale, typically on a 1-3 year scale; (e) subtle but important changes in the criteria used when assessing prospective replacement presidential candidates; and (f) discussion & debate about the quality of governance at the university, and in some cases concern and distrust regarding the power politics associated with decision making.

Finally, there are a variety of external impacts, including (a) a spike of curiosity and often concern about the nature and quality of governance, transparency and decision-making at the university, and (b) a delay in the formation of key relationships with important political leaders, leaders and key staff at major funding councils, and leaders of key foundations (mainly in the US). In the US unexpected leadership changes also raise concern within ratings agencies (e.g., Moody’s) for they have been paying increasing attention to the quality of governance and senior leadership teams when assessing universities.

These impacts will obviously vary from institution to institution so if you’re reading this at UBC please keep this key point in mind. And some disruptive impacts can shed light on long-running problems and weaknesses, or engender positive medium-term change. In UBC’s case, though, this unexpected presidential change is occurring on top of a number of other major leadership changes. More specifically, UBC now “has an acting President, an acting chair, an interim Provost, and an incoming, interim President.” There’s “also an interim VP External/Communication, and a VP Finance that has been on the job for less than 100 days.” And one related question remains to be answered: how thoroughly were the internal & external impacts of an unexpected university leadership change thought through, costed out & aligned at UBC?

Despite all of the above, large public research universities are remarkably resilient. When we went through several rough patches here at UW-Madison, faculty (including in the department I am now chair of) powered on, locomotive-like, doing what they have always done – excellent research, teaching/mentoring, and professional and public service. I know my colleagues down at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign are doing the same right now despite recently losing a president, a provost, being sanctioned by the AAUP, etc, etc. This is not to say unexpected leadership change is easy to cope with (see my points above!), but just that the sky cannot fall on a defacto city with 70-90,000 energetic students/staff/faculty. But unexpected leadership change has high direct costs, and the opportunity costs are many.

Good luck my dear alma mater.

Kris Olds

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One thought on “The Impacts of Leadership Shakeups at Large Public Research Universities: Lessons for UBC

  1. I am currently in a course focused on the organization of higher education ans your post shed light on just how many departments are affected by a sudden and unexpected change in leadership. I was surprised how financially taxing it becomes to conduct a search for a replacement for a senior administrator. It has help put the organization of these institutions in a better perspective.

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