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).