Vanishing Acts


April 23, 2013 by John Douglas Belshaw

“…and the Mole recollected that animal-etiquette forbade any sort of comment on the sudden disappearance of one’s friends at any moment, for any reason or no reason whatever.”                            – Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows (1908)

There’s a phenomenon occurring at Canadian post-secondaries that has escaped notice until lately: the revolving door of administrators.  And, like the polite creatures of Grahame’s riverbank, we seem shy to even mention it.

A recent study out of UVic examines turnover in the presidential suite, providing an account of twelve premature departures over six years.  Half of those were voluntary (although that’s still worrying because it means they left the post after less than three years at the helm).  The other half involved someone being chucked under a bus.  The study tells only part of the story: my impression is that there’s been a similarly elevated turnover among VPs-Academic and Deans/Directors as well.

An entire management team disappears....

An entire management team disappears….

Let’s assume it is a trend.  Humour me.  The last institution I worked for pitched eight administrators out the door in the space of about two years.  That’s one every three months.  There was a purge at Vancouver Community College that got rid of a squad of administrators two years ago (including two VPs) and that carried a severance bill of about $300k.  Thompson Rivers University cleaned house last year and terminated three senior administrators; three more deans have announced their departure from TRU in the last few months.  I could go on but it is almost indelicate to do so.

Why me worry?  Because it costs a ton of money to run a search, to mount a proper hiring process, to take colleagues away from their desks and their classrooms and their various projects and tie them down in a short-term committee that is awash with legal hazards.  Then you hire some poor sod and break them in and that takes another six to twelve months and you get, what, maybe a total of 32 months work out of them? That’s hugely wasteful.

Let’s do the math.  A typical presidential hiring process these days involves a headhunting firm that launches a national search.  What will that cost?  Ten?  Twenty thousand dollars?  It’s not going to be cheap.  Then the hiring committee gets pulled together; the last one I sat on included about twenty people.  Let’s imagine the average salary is $60,000 (which is probably low, since senior hires attract the involvement of senior faculty and staff, not to mention board members) – that works out to about $40 per hour multiplied by twenty = $800 for each hour of meeting time.  The committees seldom meet for less than 2 hours and when it comes to interviews a whole day might be consumed for each candidate.  So imagine four full meetings, three finalist candidates…that’s $24,000.  I’ve heard it said that a typical presidential hiring costs about $100,000, though I cannot verify it. Fifty grand does not beggar belief.

"Taut, Tense and Terrific," which is how hiring committees have been described by no one ever.

“Taut, Tense and Terrific,” which is how hiring committees have been described by no one ever.

Salaries for higher admin have not gone down in the last few years, and the lowest in the system are probably now in the range of $150,000. Recently a BC college president departed for greener pastures to the east before making it to his fifth anniversary: his total compensation in 2011-12 was $216,000.  So, add in the cost of the hiring process and that’s almost certainly more than a million dollars for a guy who doesn’t play out his contract.  And … press the reset button.

Continuity is jeopardized, the business of building dependable working relationships is made more difficult. Community engagement becomes more challenging.  Advancement campaigns and local partnerships have to imagine a more tenuous involvement of the President, as do international alliances.  So new tactics have to be developed to run an institution with a President (or Vice or Dean) whom no one feels absolutely sure will be around to see next fiscal.  Why fly them to Manila if they’re only going to be the face of the institution for another year? This makes for tentative planning and very unexciting linkages.

Next week I’ll trot out some theories as to why this is happening.  For now, I’ll close with a proposal:  No Cut, No Quit Contracts.  It’s what used to be called simply commitment. 


3 thoughts on “Vanishing Acts

  1. Alex Usher says:

    Nice piece – but you’re off by a factor of four or five on headhunting costs. Typically, they’re taking something like 25-33% of the first year of the person’s salary. For a university president, that’s usually 100K or so.

    • That is, indeed, what I’ve heard. I wonder to what extent there are regional variations in this regard. In BC, college presidents’ salaries are a fraction of what they are in some Ontario colleges — so, yes, 33% of a $600k salary is a scary sum, but it’s much less for a president earning $250k. Add in the cost of the committee work (which is so often wrongly assumed to be ‘volunteer hours’ and thus free) and we’re utterly on the same page. Thanks for the input!

  2. Athabasca says:

    I wondered why you didn’t comment on the major finding in Turpin’s work that boards who regularly turf administrators need better training and a basic understanding of how academe really works. It’s terribly hard for a university president to work with an unsympathetic or ignorant board; experience might show that when conflict happens, favour falls for the experienced (but not knowledgeable) board members and not the administrator, despite his or her experience. I’ve seen this in the arts community here in Manitoba. Once the board starts gunning for the president of the organization, all bets are usually off.

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