Former president Peter MacKinnon

An insider’s perspective

Peter MacKinnon returned to the U of S campus Jan. 20 to launch his book University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty- First Century: A President’s Perspective, an insider’s look at what one writer quoted in his book described as “the hardest job in modern society.”

By Colleen MacPherson

MacKinnon, who wrote the book while on a year-long administrative leave at the end of his 13-year term as president, draws on his own experiences to make a case for rethinking public policy around universities on several fronts, among them relationships with both federal and provincial governments, tuition, partnerships, collective bargaining and its impact on governance, and science and innovation.

"If I was true to what I wanted to do, the book is written for anyone interested in policy," said MacKinnon in an interview with On Campus News. They include faculty, staff and administrators at universities, people in government and even the general public. "I tried to write a readable book."

Throughout the volume, MacKinnon explores major issues like tenure, the importance of collective advocacy through organizations such as the U15, the value of planning and vision, and growing global competition for academic talent.

But an overarching theme is the tendency of universities to be path dependent, "a fairly simple idea that an established path is easy to follow," said MacKinnon, who is currently interim president of Athabasca University. Established paths have momentum, he continued, but simply following along can make it difficult to produce change within institutions.

While his experiences at the U of S provided starting points for policy discussions, MacKinnon attempted to shape the discussions in ways that would resonate with others across the country, acknowledging that Canada's 97 universities are "all different in significant ways."

The book also looks at the reasons for "the unprecedented high numbers of dismissals or pressured exits" of Canadian university presidents. A contributing factor to precarious presidencies, wrote Mac- Kinnon, is that the office holders are held accountable for results "over which they have little control."

Included in this chapter, entitled "Leadership with an Asterisk", are discussions of presidential searches, timing of presidencies and the building of administrative teams where MacKinnon suggested the recovery of presidential authority over senior appointments is an area in need of attention. The chapter and the book, save for the Afterword, end with a recounting of the events of May 2014 which saw the resignation of the provost and the dismissal of the president at the University of Saskatchewan.

Those events occurred after the book was complete but before its publication, he explained. In consultation with University of Toronto Press, MacKinnon decided to include some detail about what transpired, as it was "very relevant to the chapter."

MacKinnon emphasized in the book that finding policy solutions requires first asking the right policy questions such as how to sort out the current state of divided jurisdiction between Ottawa and provincial capitals in post-secondary education and research.

Universities must capitalize on their advantages, not rest on them, if they are to succeed, but universities cannot do it alone. MacKinnon states in the book that a number of communities, government being one, must share in the effort to ensure universities are the best they can be. "In short, we all need to get our act together."

Looking back over the book's content, MacKinnon said if he could ensure one policy change out of all those discussed, it would be to see government "take a more thorough and informed interest in our universities than they have to date.

"When governments turn their attention to the university, it's usually about controlling or regulating tuition. What is required … is informed, careful and deliberate discussions."