York is in the midst of a search for a new President. As we have seen at peer Universities throughout Canada (and elsewhere), this process may hold both promise and peril. In light of the importance of this leadership role (and the fact I am neither a member of the search committee nor a candidate), I wanted to share my reflections on the 5 areas of strength I believe York needs most in a new President , which I also shared with the Chair of the search committee when asked for my input over the summer.
The 5 areas of strength I believe York needs most in a new President:
1) The most important role of a President, in my view, is to bring the University community together, including students, staff, faculty, alumni, unions, donors and the many organizations, groups and individuals with whom the University collaborates to advance its mission. This aspect of the role is by far the most difficult. How can a leader convince people who differ fundamentally on their vision for the University that all have a shared sense of belonging, and that while a University needs to stand for a particular vision, and a particular set of values, the views of each member of the University community are deserving of discussion and reflection? A President needs to be a skilled listener, to be authentic in keeping an open mind to the prospect that others have ideas that are as good or better than your own, and to be viewed as someone with integrity and credibility.
2) The President must ensure the University is (and is seen as) dedicated to the advancement of the society in which it is embedded (in both the local and global sense of the term). Universities are drivers of social and economic enterprise, of mobility and inclusion, and of public debate. In my role as the Presidential Advisor on Community Engagement, I have had a bird’s-eye view on the kind of impact a University can (and, in my view, should) have on building and supporting communities, whether through collaborative community-based research, clinical programs, incubators, hubs and accelerators, pro-bono and public interest services to meet community needs, social procurement, proactive recruitment and inclusion in student admissions and staff/faculty hiring, a culture of lifelong learning, etc.
3) The President must be an articulate and motivating communicator. Successful Presidents must give an authentic and passionate account of the University’s aspirations, and a transparent account of its challenges. While outward- focused communications are a key aspect of the role, communications within the University are just as important. For many, at times of pride or distress, Presidents become the voice of the University. For example, a President who begins events by acknowledging the traditional Indigenous territory which the University shares, reflects the University’s aspiration to Reconciliation. A President who demonstrates that all voices in the community are valued can help ensure none are silenced or marginalized.
4) The President must have an intuitive grasp of York’s ecosystem. York cannot afford, in my view, a President who is simply looking for the next step on the career ladder and is applying to York and other Universities as if these are all interchangeable Presidential slots. Universities are defined by their own sense of themselves, their history, and their narrative. Ideally, a President should be both an insider and an outsider – in our context, someone who has intimate familiarity with York’s many, diverse and distinct moving parts, but who also can see the University with fresh eyes, and bring lateral insights to how its most intractable problems can be solved. Additionally, a President needs to assemble and motivate other engaged and energetic leaders throughout the University who bring out the best in those around them. In a diffuse and decentralized environment like York, Presidents will rise or fall based on the strength of their teams. This goal requires a President who is accessible, collaborative, and responsive.
5) The President of any University in 2016 must be committed to change, adaptation and resilience, but this resonates especially at York. Postsecondary education faces a crisis of sustainability. Will tuition and student debt rise indefinitely? Will the casualization of academic employment continue with no end in sight? Will the tech disruption in University life enhance the quality of academic discourse and the reach of our scholars or leave us behind? Each of these questions brings with it possibility and uncertainty. Those Universities that thrive will be the ones which embrace such questions, explore these possibilities and address anxieties in open and transparent ways.
York’s Presidential search has had a long wind-up (with input from all quarters of the University, the development of a position profile, etc) and now is in the midst of the brief and intense pitch (considering the candidates, applying the criteria, etc). I join with other Deans, and with the entire York community in wishing the Search Committee well in its deliberations – and in the shared hope to see York move from strength to strength.