Review Of Peter MacKinnon, University Leadership And Public Policy In The Twenty-First Century

September 2015

Peter MacKinnon was Dean of Law at the University of Saskatchewan and then President of that institution from 1999 to 2012. This book is based on his experiences and on interviews with other university administrators as well on the literature about advanced education. The main theme is “path dependency,” a term borrowed from the social sciences to describe inertia in human affairs. Both individuals and institutions tend to continue in their established trajectories. Decisions once made tend to foreclose other options, and vested interests grow up around the status quo, making change difficult.

In MacKinnon’s view, the mission of the university president is to move the university away from path dependency and towards bigger and better goals—higher standards, bigger budgets for research and graduate programs, greater recognition in international rankings. It’s all very familiar to anyone who has ever worked in university administration. I used to think and talk this way myself in my five years as a department head and two terms as a special assistant to university presidents.

MacKinnon’s analysis of the factors that often impede presidentially led change is perceptive. Presidents are frustrated at every turn by faculty unions that want collective bargaining to trump internal decision-making, provincial politicians who try to manipulate universities for political objectives, weak-kneed boards of governors, federal governments that refuse to pay overhead for major research projects, and philanthropists who want control as well as recognition after giving large amounts of money. The “precarious presidency” is how MacKinnon sums it all up.

Any Canadian academic considering a tour in senior administration would profit from reading this book. It gives a realistic view of the pitfalls that lie ahead and a sober assessment of what one is likely to achieve. However, the book is almost completely silent about the concerns that animate the members of SAFS. There is no mention of the rampant grade inflation undermining academic standards at Canadian universities, nor of the cresting wave of political correctness menacing ordinary freedom of speech as well as academic freedom.

A university president’s failure even to mention such subjects shows how remote the typical president is today from campus life. “That’s the concern of the provost,” he would probably say. Relatedly, there is no discussion of how university administration has grown both in size and expense in recent decades, and how administrators who come to do good for the institution end up by doing well for themselves in salaries, perks, and pensions.

Indeed, the only place students appear in the book is in the chapter on tuition, which discusses how universities might wring more tuition out of students while getting governments even more deeply involved with students loans. There is no mention of what is now being

vigorously discussed in the United States, namely that government-funded student loans may be luring too many people into university, saddling them with debts they can never repay.

This is an insider’s book, exploring how a determined president can drag his institution up the scale of financing and prestige. The author never attempts to take a systemic view of what advanced education as a whole has become and whether its current path is sustainable. Members of SAFS will probably be more interested in the new book by Glenn Harland Reynolds, The Education Apocalypse,which depicts higher education, at least in the United States, as a bubble that has already started to burst. After recently visiting my beloved alma mater, Notre Dame University, and seeing the lavish new buildings and athletic facilities, and hearing about the $60,000 annual cost of tuition plus room and board, I’m inclined to think Reynolds is on to something.

Those who lead universities don’t have time to ask systemic questions; they are paid to shake their institutions loose from path dependency and push them towards higher levels of funding, recognition, and “excellence.” But SAFS members can’t help but ask what this means for academic freedom, student affordability, and quality of instruction. It would be interesting to see MacKinnon turn his mind to questions such as these now that he has explored the mechanics of institutional aggrandizement.

Peter MacKinnon, University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century

(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014). ISBN 978-1-4426-1611-0.