Yesterday, the UBC Presidential Search Committee organized a public event in the Alumni Centre to receive feedback into the process of identifying the next president. As far as these things go, the event was surprisingly well-attended with almost all of the 21 committee members and 150-200 members of the public present. Another one will take place today on the Okanagan campus.
Officially called a “town hall”, that term usually implies two-way interactions. In this instance, the committee was really conducting more of a listening session. Three microphones were set up in the audience. After some short opening remarks by AMS President Aaron Bailey and Chancellor Lindsay Gordon, two questions were posed to the public by the committee: (1) What are the ideal qualities or attributes that the new president should possess? and (2) What are the main challenges that UBC faces, now and in the future? The rest of the hour was turned over to any audience members that wished to get up and speak.
Most speakers addressed the first question, and identified a huge range of desired qualities from student engagement, academic bona fides, a commitment to quality teaching, reflecting UBC’s values, an inspirational presence, a vision for the future, good fiscal management, and political acumen, among many others. With the exception of one or two people, speakers were articulate and had valid points to make.
When all the desired characteristics are assembled together, as admirable as each of them might be individually, the ideal UBC President turns out to be a unicorn – magical and sparkly but unfortunately non-existent. No single individual, no matter how high the quality of the candidates available, will be able to demonstrate all of the qualities sought by the university community. Fortunately, the President does not run the university alone. Far from it. The position, while certainly the most visible one, is just one piece of the university leadership along with the Board, the Senate, Vice-Presidents, Deans and on down the line.
Hopefully committee members – most of whom hold leadership positions at UBC themselves – realize that the people who spoke at the town hall weren’t narrowly expressing what they expected from the single individual who will become the next president, but broadly from the university’s leadership as a whole. The qualities sought from the new president are ones the that committee members should also be striving to embody in their regular positions within the university’s organizational structure. In particular, this is most pertinent for the 5 members Presidential Search Committee who also sit on the Board of Governors: Lindsay Gordon, Greg Peet, Celeste Haldane, Fiona MacFarlane, and Darrin Lehman. It cannot be the President’s responsibility alone to be collaborative, transparent, inspirational, and creative; if the Board is going to demand these qualities from a new president, they should publicly demand it from themselves as well.
Ultimately, the town hall was a useful exercise for optics and for people to get some thoughts off their chests but will be of almost no value to the actual presidential search. It is unlikely to significantly influence the candidate profile, and will have zero effect on whether or not a prospective candidate decides to be brave or foolish enough to put their name forward for the job. We’ll find out who that might be in just a few months.