Former Laurentian president writes book on leadership

'I make the point in the book, that every year three or four things come up totally out of the blue. And that has a lot to do with your success or failure'

Ross Paul has written Leadership Under Fire: the Challenging Role of the Canadian University President, a book about university leadership. Postmedia

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By Brian Cross


The $315,000-a-year Ross Paul collected from the University of Windsor after leaving as president in 2008 has helped him write a book about university leadership.

“Yes, it was,” Paul acknowledged on when asked if the research, interviews and writing that went into Leadership Under Fire: the Challenging Role of the Canadian University President were largely done while on administrative leave from the U of W. After 10 years as president, he was entitled to a year and 10 months of administrative leave, according to his contract, time he spent on a number of projects, including his just-published $49.95 book.

Paul, 69, said he acknowledges the contribution of the U of W in the book. “I’m very grateful to the University of Windsor for that support, because I had to pay all of my own travel expenses and interview expenses, and it was great to have that, obviously.”

After the leave he officially retired from the U of W. He lives in Vancouver. He said working on the book for a year and a half was a wonderful way to wrap up almost 40 years of university leadership. “It was kind of a decompression.”

Dave Cooke, the former NDP cabinet minister who served on the university’s board of governors from 2000 to 2009, the final two years as chairman, said writing such a book is the kind of work the university would expect a president to do while on administrative leave.

“Is it subsidized? Well, I guess you could make the point that anything a university professor publishes is subsidized,” said Cooke, who explained that administrative leave is basically a sabbatical for university administrators.

“People can have an honest discussion about whether this is the right thing to have in the system — on balance I think it is — but it’s normal, it’s not something that was unique to Ross Paul’s contract,” said Cooke.

He said even if universities decided to stop giving departing presidents hefty payouts when they finish, the U of W wouldn’t be the place to initiate it. If the school wants to recruit the best candidates to Windsor for these jobs, it can’t tell them they won’t get a sabbatical at the end, he said.

“These people are extremely well educated and have lots of credentials and they want to do some research or writing when they’re finished.”

When asked if he believes Ross was a good leader as president, Cooke said Paul faced a number of challenges, from a significant change in how the university was governed, to fundraising challenges, to continued poor performances in the Maclean’s university ratings.

“I think there were a lot of challenges he had and he brought us through those challenges.”

Retired professor Lloyd Brown-John said it’s “perfectly legitimate” for Paul to have written a book while being paid by the university. “That’s fine,” he said. “I wrote three books while I was on sabbaticals, it was an opportunity to do books unencumbered.”

Mind you, Paul was paid lots more, Brown-John added. In 2009, his first full year on administrative leave, Paul made $315,379.

During Paul’s presidency enrolment climbed from 8,000 to 12,000 while the number of graduate students doubled to 1,200. The school added a new stadium, the Toldo health education building, a new medical building and a human kinetics building. He also started the groundwork for the new engineering building which opened to glowing reviews this fall.

Paul said his book is based largely on his experiences as a university president at Windsor and before that at Laurentian in Sudbury, where he was president for seven years. Before that, he was in Alberta and Quebec. But it’s also based on the experience of 11 other former or current successful university presidents he interviewed. It examines why there are so many failed presidencies, defined as when a president leaves after a first five-year term or leaves before that first term is up.

A big problem is about 95 per cent of presidents are brought in from other universities, where they usually served as a vice-president. They’re dropped into a new culture, doing job they’ve not done before, and are left by the board to sink or swim.

“There are usually very high expectations for a new president, there’s an excitement, new blood, new directions and new energies coming in,” Paul said. “So it really doesn’t make sense.”

They’re almost always coming from an academic background and are expected to deal with collective bargaining, fundraising, government relations, working with the community and international recruitment, he said. “They know how universities work, but they don’t have the experience of being a CEO of a major corporation, which is what universities are now.”

When he became president of Laurentian, Paul initially thought “Oh my God, I’m in charge of this place, what do I do?” But he arrived at Windsor with a better grasp. He listened to everybody for the first six months before taking strong actions, he said.

He eventually developed a Best of Both Worlds strategy for Windsor, a strategic plan to not be all things to all people but to focus on specific areas of expertise — automotive, environment and social justice. He also dealt with unsettling issues, such as charges of racism levelled after as many as 30 police descended on a Caribbean Club even in 2008, as well as the shooting of a student whom Paul visited in the hospital.

“I make the point in the book, that every year three or four things come up totally out of the blue,” he said. “And that has a lot to do with your success or failure.”

Twitter: @SudburyStar