- University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century: A President’s Perspective by Peter MacKinnon
“University presidents are storytellers.” Thus Peter MacKinnon begins the seventh chapter of University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century. Given the growing record in the Canadian academy of incomplete mandates and premature departures, the story being told in presidential memoirs may in the future take on the air of Greek tragedy, with the author cast as the tragic hero, trustees as the Fates by whom administrative lives are randomly cut off, and the faculty, staff, and students as both a chorus of commentators and fickle participants in the tragic action. [End Page 314]
This is not such a book. The author’s thirteen-year tenure as the president of the University of Saskatchewan established him as a highly regarded university leader and was by all significant measures extremely successful. Not surprisingly, then, his memoir—or “President’s Perspective” as the subtitle describes it—is notably free of tragic elements and, despite being very personal, is in no way narcissistic. Indeed, almost every one of its eight chapters traces a movement from personal recollection, through analysis, to edification. This is the work of an inveterate teacher, who recalls and reflects on his own experiences in order to distill their lesson.
For whose benefit does he do this? The story of the University of Saskatchewan “is of general interest,” MacKinnon tells us, “because it is an account of positioning, differentiation, and planning that, with modifications appropriate to local circumstances, is applicable to other institutions.” And evident everywhere in the book is the author’s profound commitment to the cause of higher education and to the good of universities in particular. Thus we have chapters devoted to planning and the pursuit of goals, to tuition and financial assistance, to relations between academia and political engagement, to philanthropy, to governance, and to collective bargaining. On each of these topics the author offers insightful analysis and precisely formulated conclusions.
Despite MacKinnon’s scrupulous avoidance of gossip and sensationalism, the tragic drama of recently failed presidencies is somehow always in the background. By the time we reach the final chapter, “Precarious Presidency,” which deals explicitly with this subject, we have been well prepared to understand it not as a drama of fatal character flaws and gubernatorial connivance but rather as a symptom of far-reaching and fundamental change in the university sector.
The duties of a president, MacKinnon learned, “are multilayered and multidimensional,” which makes the position inherently precarious “in the midst of the demands and expectations of its several communities.” Since few individuals who take on the role are fully prepared for it, this structurally derived precariousness is always a challenge, and throughout the book MacKinnon reflects frankly on both his successes and his failures in this regard. But as he makes clear at the outset, where the president sits on the organizational chart is only the beginning of his or her precariousness. “Universities must and will change,” notwithstanding their being “path-dependent” organizations with a status quo bias and internal organizations and processes that reinforce that bias. The peculiar characteristic of this historic moment—and no doubt partly the cause of the increase in incomplete presidential mandates—is that there are many external “impulses for altering institutional trajectories.” According to MacKinnon, these include “misalignment” between governments and universities, “more explicit and intense competitive influences,” and technology. [End Page 315]
How a president should act and think in order to effectively guide an institution through such changing circumstances—“to alter a path” rather than adjust incrementally to those changes—is the lesson on offer here. One difficulty, familiar to almost every university leader in this country and beyond, is that certain external pressures for change need to be simultaneously accommodated and resisted. Among these the most notable is “the idea of the multiversity as an institution of the economy, bringing together a new way of thinking about the university and a new way of thinking about the...