And another university prez without a Ph.D.

Alexa McDonough, new president at Mount Saint Vincent, is latest non-academic to head an academic institution

Mount Saint Vincent university in Halifax has named Alexa McDonough, the former leader of the federal New Democratic Party, as its interim president. McDonough is the latest in a growing list of university presidents who do not have a Ph.D. and are not academics. McDonough earned a B.A. and a Master’s of Social Work at Dalhousie.

What does the trend mean for universities? For students? As I wrote earlier this year, there are compelling reasons for at least some universities to want a person with non-academic experience at the top of the academic pyramid:

The position of university president—which used to be given to a distinguished professor—is now often going to someone who has made a career as a manager, not a researcher. Most other sectors of the economy long ago moved to this model: to become CEO of an airline, you don’t have to spend 20 years piloting 747s; to run a telecom company, you don’t have to spend a lifetime becoming your company’s most experienced telephone line installer; to run a TV network, you don’t have be a professional camera operator or have hosted your own TV show. What’s more, a university president is not only the manager of a large organization, he or she is managing an organization more decentralized than almost any other. Employees (professors) have an extremely high degree of autonomy (not to mention tenure), as do the various departments and schools within the university. The job requires managerial talents that are often more akin to politics than traditional, private-sector management. And a large and growing part of the president’s job is fund-raising: another unusual skill that combines elements of politics, salesmanship, vision and innate charm. None of these attributes is likely to be developed by spending most of one’s life conducting experiments and writing papers.

Re-read those last few sentences: being a university president is partly about being a politician. (That’s not a put-down. Honestly.) You have to be diplomatic, charming and very, very patient. So it’s no surprise that many of these new non-professorial presidents are ex-politicians or at least closely connected to the worlds of politics and government.

The list of other university heads who are not academics include the University of Winnipeg’s Lloyd Axworthy (has a Ph.D. but spent most of his working life in politics); Acadia University’s Ray Ivany (has an M.Sc., is a career academic and public sector administrator); Sean Riley of St. Francis Xavier (has a Ph.D. but worked mostly in government and the private sector); Michael Goldbloom of Bishop’s (lawyer, former head of English-rights lobby group Alliance Quebec, corporate executive, university administrator) and Allan Rock at the University of Ottawa (lawyer and politician).

And another university prez without a Ph.D.

  1. Sept. 14, 2009
    The author’s comments about some university presidents not having a Ph.D. are interesting. Regarding McDonough, it’s notable, then, that the website of Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU, or ‘The Mount’) in Halifax currently proclaims, “The Mount welcomes Interim President and Vice-Chancellor Dr. Alexa McDonough.”
    In this case McDonough’s ‘Dr.’ status presumably derives from an honorary Ph.D. she received somewhere along the way because of her friendships, political work, and other things; not from earning one as many of us have done.
    I was initially surprised to see the former NDP leader touted as “Dr. Alexa McDonough” on MSVU’s website because I didn’t think she has an earned doctorate–which most universities insist on even for positions as professors.
    MSVU might be technically within its bounds to call McDonough “Dr.” because she has an honorary Ph.D. Yet, I also think MSVU is guilty of a little conscious hyperbole in announcing “Dr. Alexa McDonough”–perhaps because it knows appointing a non-Ph.D. as university president might be a sensitive issue in some quarters. This could be one reason the university’s website does not tout ‘Former NDP Leader and politician Alexa McDonough’ as its current interim president. Thus, calling her “Dr. Alexa McDonough” seems MSVU’s way of manufacturing her academic credibility to help ward off potential criticism of the appointment.
    In these contexts, Mr. Keller, the author of the article, sheds helpful light on why McDonough can be a university president without having an earned Ph.D.

    Sincerely,
    Tim Cowan, Ph.D. (University of Western Ontario, 2006),
    Professor, Hallym University,
    Chuncheon, South Korea

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