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President’s message / The malaise in post-secondary administrative recruitment

President’s message / The malaise in post-secondary administrative recruitment

By Peter McInnis

For some time now, we have observed a troubling situation in the recruitment and retention of proficient administrators in Canadian post-secondary education. Bold announcements appear on university and college websites, touting newly hired senior managers. We are duly informed that they will bring bold and innovative concepts to our campuses, liaise effectively with governments, spur philanthropic donations, bolster student enrollment, to “fuel” and “ignite” institutional reputations.

In more than a few instances, the result is more an act of bureaucratic self-immolation than demonstrable leadership.

Senior appointments may introduce a welcome change in direction and managerial stability, and many who serve in such capacity are sincere in their commitment. In other instances, what is deemed to be a good fit for an institution proves to be ill-considered or counterproductive. These flawed appointments may lead to scandals ranging from false claims of Indigenous identity, questionable academic credentials, or managerial ineptitude.

The use of private, for-profit executive search consultants has become ubiquitous at Canadian universities and colleges. These firms advertise a “deep understanding” of post-secondary education, but often exhibit a shallow and undemocratic conception of our researching and learning environment. This is a process premised on contempt for the principles of collegiality.

Executive search firms manipulate the hiring process, as many offer extensive guidance for application dossiers and pre-interview coaching so candidates can present themselves in the most favourable circumstances. Perhaps this is why some of these corporate-facilitated placements fail to meet their initial promise?

This recruitment process is often cloaked in secrecy and the criteria for candidate selection obscure. The dubious rationale offered is that the utmost confidentiality is necessary to secure leading candidates.

Notably, this also creates a new cadre of careerist administrators whose loyalties lie not with their institutions but rather with their individual advancement. Mid-term resignations to secure more favourable positions are routine. Consequently, we’ve seen a travelling band of administrators jump from one campus to another, dragging their tarnished reputations in tow.

Collegial governance, a fundamental principle of higher education, is undermined with this corporatized process. Faculty, staff and students are given few, if any, opportunities to interview prospective appointees. If a selection committee is formed, its ambit may be restricted to acceptance of a pre-vetted shortlist. This replication of participatory engagement can lead to future troubles. Often new administrative appointees are simply presented to their respective institutions; c’est une affaire conclue.

This normalization of reduced collegial governance is a relatively recent innovation, as unwelcome as it is ineffective. In the past, it was typical that senior administrative positions were subject to open fora, where candidate presentations were followed by questions and answers. Joint committees of senates and boards were convened. Formal job talks led to casual meetings with interested faculty. This process provided engaged and informed participation, resulting in an eventual decision with broad acceptance.

The current lack of transparency and tightly controlled agendas is consistent with the overall crisis in governance at many universities and colleges. Substantive consultation with the campus community is replaced by top-down decisions. Information necessary to make informed choices is withheld or distributed at the last minute prior to crucial meetings of senates or faculty councils.

Senior administrators who were hired in a secretive selection process may have no qualm with continuing in a similarly high-handed fashion. A subtle shift in vocabulary often accompanies this narrowing of governance, as campus correspondence refers to faculty as “employees,” with implied diminishment in professional status as it pertains to academic freedom.

It is not too late to reverse this pernicious trend. Faculty, staff and students must transcend their allocated roles as subordinate “stakeholders” to be summarily consulted on terms not of their choosing, and instead demand a robust model of participatory inclusion. Retaining corporate executive recruitment firms is not inevitable, nor irreversible. Recent collective agreements have resulted in bringing the faculty back into the hiring process in meaningful ways. Such a change in direction will require mobilization and commitment as administrative power, once absconded, will not be easily redistributed.

Our universities and colleges are complex entities. The internal and external pressures to navigate a wide range of demands are undoubtably challenging. It’s not a job that most can meet effectively. The need for effective administrators is obvious, but so too is the requirement that these appointments be made in the most transparent and inclusive process that respects the true goals of higher education to advance a broad spectrum of knowledge and support engaged citizenship.

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