15 Canadian university presidents en route for India, 2011

Paul, R. (2011) Leadership Under Fire: The Challenging Role of the Canadian University President Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, pp. 333 CA $49.95, US $49.95

This book, drawing on interviews with 11 Canadian past or present university presidents, as well as Ross Paul’s own experience in four Canadian universities, provides not only a comprehensive analysis of the challenges faced by university presidents, but also a very good insight into the unique context of Canadian universities. Although not specifically about e-learning or distance education, there is a great deal of relevance to these areas within the book, which I will address in the comments below.


The chapter headings provide a good indication of the topics covered:

Chapter 1: Distinguishing characteristics of Canadian universities

Chapter 2: Canadian university presidents: who they are and how they are selected

Chapter 3: Organizational culture and the university

Chapter 4: Institutional vision and strategic planning

Chapter 5: Academic leadership

Chapter 6: Confronting a declining undergraduate experience

Chapter 7: International outreach

Chapter 8: Financial issues: underfunded or fat cats?

Chapter 9: Presidential leadership and day-to-day administration

Chapter 10: The external roles of the President

Chapter 11: Institutional governance and presidential accountability

Chapter 12: Institutional autonomy and system diversity

Chapter 13: How much difference does a president make?

Chapter 14: Seven major issues for today’s presidents:

  • ensuring institutional quality;
  • increasing institutional differentiation;
  • facilitating student mobility
  • responding more creatively to financial pressures;
  • championing the case for Canadian universities;
  • providing moral leadership;
  • ensuring the quality of graduates.

There is also an extensive appendix with biographies of the 11 presidents interviewed.


This should be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the unique context of Canadian universities, which differs significantly from the US, UK or even the Australian context. There is much wisdom, common-sense advice and lessons from experience for those thinking of being a university president (all I can say about that is: ‘Be careful what you wish for’, as the book clearly demonstrates the peculiar challenges of a modern university president.)

In terms of online learning, the book is both directly and indirectly relevant. He writes:

‘Canadian universities have not seen major technological changes in teaching and learning as central to their ability to cope [with financial pressures]. While every campus-based university now offers some form of online teaching and other forms of distance education, these are usually complementary to the existing mode of operation rather than something that might replace standard classroom teaching in the future…..the prevailing enrolment-based funding systems in Canada tend to discourage innovative approaches to teaching and learning.’ (p.144)

Unfortunately for the Canadian system, which sees every year increases in student enrolment unmatched by equivalent government per-student funding, he shares my view that

‘the status-quo is still the most likely option in the short-term, but the cumulative impact of too many years of this approach would ultimately require a dramatic response as the quality of undergraduate teaching in particular deteriorates beyond acceptable levels…..Duderstadt et al. …see procrastination and inaction as the worst responses and urge presidents to do everything they can to mobilize their campuses to consider the implications of new technologies and new learners and to prepare for the significant changes to follow.’ (p.148).

More indirectly, Paul’s chapter on organizational culture and the university is essential reading for those wanting to bring about change from within. Drawing on the literature of organizational cultures, he identifies six main cultures found in Canadian universities (most universities tend to have one dominant culture, but also one or two other sub-cultures that also play an important role). Interestingly, he draws on Bergquist’s ‘virtual’ culture, which ‘emanates from cultural and technological developments since the early 1990s.‘ (p.56). (Paul points out that this is similar to Latchem and Hanna’s ‘entrepreneurial culture’). Paul writes (pp.57-58):

‘The important issue here is not the advent of new communications technologies but the cultural changes implicit in their influence. These  include new categories of learners, more open systems, and an associated rise in consumerism whereby students expect certain levels of service for their rising tuition fees and even develop a sense of entitlement that extends to faculty evaluations of their academic work.’

However, this culture is associated mainly with non-traditional organizations, such as the University of Phoenix or to open universities such as Athabasca University or the UK Open University. This is a description of an already existing organizational culture, and I expect these ‘virtual’ organizations to continue to develop in new ways and grow in strength.

However, I suspect that we will also see, slowly emerging, a somewhat different ‘hybrid’ culture that attempts to combine traditional academic values of scholarship with the intelligent application of technology to teaching and learning, resulting in new, hybrid forms of teaching and learning that includes a campus but within a less traditionally organized institution that will be only partly ‘virtual.’ Indeed, in my view a move towards this ‘hybrid’ culture is probably an essential condition of survival for nearly all traditional universities except for those in the semi-private Ivy League or for small, specialized (and expensive) liberal arts universities that focus on the campus experience .

Lastly, this book provides a key entry point for course redesign built around the intelligent application of learning technologies, in Paul’s concern about the declining quality of the undergraduate experience. Large lecture classes of over 1,000 students make no sense (other than being a very cheap way to provide teaching) in this modern age. My niece (on a student exchange from the UK) in her third year as an undergraduate psychology student in a prestigious Canadian university was shocked to receive a computer-marked mid-term examination  which was little more than a trivia memory test, yet it counted substantially towards her final grade. The defense her instructor gave when challenged was that this is the only way to mark large numbers of students. This is the unintelligent application of technology. We can and should do much better for our students. This requires completely rethinking the undergraduate experience and designing from scratch, with a focus on what is essential about the campus experience, how best to use the scarce time of top research faculty in undergraduate teaching, and how best to exploit the affordances of technology for assessment, interaction and engagement. If Canadian universities can do that, they will be world leaders in higher education.


Thankfully, this is not a booster book for Canadian higher education or even for university presidents. Paul makes it only too clear that while most university presidents are exceptional people, they are also human and have limits to their power.

The book also asks some very pertinent questions and presents very clearly the challenges faced not just by Presidents but by the Canadian higher education sector in general. At the same time, there are a great many positive suggestions about change and how to bring this about. And lastly, it is such a pleasure to read an academic book that is so well written and readable.



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