Another university president without a Ph.D.

Acadia’s new president continues a trend at Canadian universities

Acadia today announced that it has named Ray Ivany as its new president. Ivany has a long record as an academic administrator: he served as a vice-president at what was then the University College of Cape Breton (which has since transformed into Cape Breton University); he headed Nova Scotia Community College for nearly a decade; he is currently Chair of the Workers’ Compensation Board of Nova Scotia, and also sits on the boards of the Canadian Council on Learning, the Halifax Prior Learning Assessment Centre, and the Leading Edge Endowment Fund B.C. Regional Innovation Chair program. As an administrator of large organizations, Ivany has a distinguished track record. But one thing he doesn’t have is a Ph.D. Ivany is not an academic.

This makes Ivany part of an growing trend in academia. 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.

Hence the growing trend to look outside the academy. Ottawa last year chose as president former lawyer and politician Allan Rock. Also last year, Bishop’s installed as principal Michael Goldbloom, a lawyer who has had careers leading a lobby group (Alliance Quebec), running the Montreal YMCA, as a newspaper executive (with the Montreal Gazette and Toronto Star), and, from 2007 to 2008, as a vice-president at McGill. The University of Winnipeg is headed by a politician, Lloyd Axworthy. He has a Ph.D. but is not a career academic. The same goes for the chief at St. Francis Xavier, Sean Riley. He has a Ph.D., but his career prior to becoming president was spent in government and the private sector, not as a professor.

On the other hand, to be a university president, you need to have an intimate understanding of what a university is, and what its employees do. You have to be able to relate to them, and they have to be able to relate to you. Unlike private sector managers, university presidents are not really the boss of their organizations. But as a university president, you have a number of bosses, including, to some extent, the professors (who are not your “employees”. Not really.) It’s a very unusual situation. Even people who have spent years as professors inside the system sometimes forget the dynamics of the relationship, once they make it to the top. (See Larry Summers, one of the world’s leading economist, a former Treasury secretary and the appointee to head Barak Obama’s National Economic Council. He spent five years as president of Harvard, from 2001 to 2006, but was ultimately run out of office by the faculty).

Acadia is one of Canada’s oldest and most respected small liberal arts universities, but the last few years have brought serious challenges. It has spent ambitiously, but enrolment has not kept up with those ambitions. It is located in a part of the country that is facing a precipitous drop in its university-aged population. Like its peers, it has no choice but to market itself aggressively among high school students beyond its region. What’s more, the last president, Gail Dinter-Gottlieb, served through two faculty strikes, and resigned the presidency many months before her contract was up.

Last month, before his appointment, Ivany spoke at Acadia about his vision for the university’s future. There appears to have been considerable enthusiasm for him and his ideas. You can read a summary here.




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Another university president without a Ph.D.

  1. Just wondering, have there been any negative effects of hiring university presidents without a Ph.D so far? As long as they take their time to learn all the facts and how the university structure works, I’m open to the idea since it may mean new blood and new perspectives which can shake things up.

  2. Hey Daniel,

    No, there have not been any negative effects. From an undergraduate perspective, I believe there are more benefits from an non-academic compared to an academic. I’ve found non-Ph.D. presidents are more engaged with the undergraduate student body.

    One of the best presidents in the country is Lloyd Axworthy.

  3. As an Acadia alumnus, I’m quite pleased by Ivany’s appointment. Gottlieb’s tenure as president is the perfect example of all that can go wrong when a career academic is appointed. I should note that she was informed at some point by the Board that they would not be “inviting” her to return for a second term.

  4. @Joey,

    Axworthy has a PhD!

    In political science.

  5. I don’t think the key difference is Phd. vs non-Phd. The credential itself does not prepare one to be a university president. It’s really about a career academic vs. not.

    I don’t know that what is useful in a university setting is to bring in a generic CEO type can often be successful.

    In any event, Ivany may not have a phd or be a career academic, but he’s not exactly parachuting in without considerable experience, knowledge and skill in post-secondary education. It’s been his life’s work, and he is truly one of the top 10 education leaders in the country.

    Quite a coup for Acadia…this guy could have gone anywhere.

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