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College president a tough gig

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Who in their right mind would want to be a college president?

Consider this. You're expected to walk a tightrope between student and industry demands, shrinking government funding and managing the needs and wants of faculty and administrators. And you get paid less than the so-called big guns at universities.

Right now, Red River College is likely looking at how it's going to recruit a new president following the departure of Stephanie Forsyth. On paper, Ms. Forsyth says she's leaving for personal and family reasons and indeed, her partner has taken up a position to work in B.C. However, it's clear there have been tensions in her tenure as president, with allegations of mismanagement of funds, heavy turnover of senior administrators and questionable expenses.

If Ms. Forsyth found this to be a tough gig, she's not alone. A survey of American college presidents indicated that in 2010, 34 per cent of the presidents had resigned or retired under pressure from their institution. That's up from 25 per cent in 2006. Another three per cent had been terminated for cause in 2010. In 2006, there had been no such terminations. This says something about the new reality for college presidents.

David Trick knows a thing or two about this changing environment. He's a management consultant who specializes in higher education and a former assistant deputy minister in Ontario. He says back in the day, university presidents could stay in their job for 20 years. That's not the norm now.

Much of this is due to the fact the role of the post-secondary president in Canada has shifted significantly. The funding models for colleges and universities have faced enormous challenges, increasingly relying on presidents at both to fundraise in order to offset budgetary demands.

At the same time, a good college president must ensure she or he meets with those in industry to ensure the programs being offered are relevant and will meet the needs of employers and the students. In an increasingly globalized world, this means not just within the city, but nationally and internationally as well.

Trick says colleges usually recruit from outside and so new presidents come in with a limited local network and are expected to get up to speed quickly to make contacts. Ms. Forsyth is an example of that. Recruited from a B.C. college, she came onto the Winnipeg scene facing her biggest competitor for fundraising dollars: Lloyd Axworthy, the former president of the University of Winnipeg, a local guy who took schmoozing to a new level following 50 years in the public eye. Any comparisons to Forsyth's ability would have her come up short, particularly in Winnipeg, which has a reputation for being more than a bit parochial to outsiders.

The extraordinary public scrutiny for college presidents is also a rather new component to the job. Trick says presidents are being forced to do more in the public eye like "fundraising, forming partnerships, and there are increased expectations of public accountability." Again, Ms. Forsyth found this out first-hand, having to respond to concerns that she billed the college for things like her golf shoes and car washes -- expenditures the college board of governors ultimately approved.

This leaves Red River in a bit of a dilemma. How can it expect to recruit and retain a new college president in this new era of professional fundraising and heightened scrutiny?

Given Ms. Forsyth's exit, there's a sense there won't be a long lineup of people willing to put their name forward. Who in their right mind would want to do it?

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2014 A12

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