Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: University Presidents

October 12

The Right Way to Argue for Basic Research

The week before last, you may recall, I took issue with the way the country’s illustrious top university presidents (Gerforno, for short) were trying to sell higher education.  Effectively, what they were doing was selling higher education’s research mission by claiming “look, basic research creates jobs” on the basis of a few anecdotes.

The feedback I got was mostly “we really like the portmanteau Gerforno but are not necessarily convinced that there’s any other way to argue for basic research – if all the government wants to hear about is jobs, growth and middle-class families, isn’t that they way Presidents have to sell it?”  And there’s something to this view.  I used to work at Universities Canada; I get their lobbying strategy, and yes, this is exactly what the Presidents are thinking.

My objection is effectively two-fold.  Part of it is that there is too much intellectual dishonesty involved.  While there is a lot of research that ties a country’s overall research spend to long-term GDP growth rates or productivity rates, there is very little to substantiate a link between publicly-funded research or basic research with same.  That’s not to say the link doesn’t exist, just that the research doesn’t exist to prove it.  And second of all, there’s frankly a risk that coming to government year after year and saying “research means higher productivity means more jobs wears thin after awhile.  I mean, it’s been 20 years since the feds created the Canada Foundation for Innovation and really started spending money on research and as far as I know no one’s suggesting that all that money has in fact moved the needle on productivity very much.  Now, if we re-ran the last twenty years to answer the counter-factual “and what would productivity and growth look like if we hadn’t spent all that money” we might find it has in fact been worth it, but it’s easy to understand why politicians and civil servants might be skeptical about this claim.

So now many of you are now thinking “ok smart guy, how would you argue for it”?  Fair challenge.  Here’s my take:

I agree that there needs to be a way to link research to the idea of prosperity, but I think it has to be done in a way which is at once both much more specific and much more general than the way we are doing it now.  More specific in the sense that we have to stop arguing that research on its own is going to deliver growth because that’s a completely nonsensical proposition.  Investment in research is a necessary but insufficient condition.  To credibly link research to the economic engine, the research agenda needs to be tied to a whole bunch of other agendas: a competition agenda, a tax agenda, a regulation agenda, etc.  And the higher education agenda needs to make allies among people in other sectors who can help broaden this agenda.

At the same time, research advocates need to be less specific in the sense that we need to stop claiming that investment in this or that particular new shiny thing is going to lead to breakthroughs/growth/prosperity.  Every time higher ed leaders try to make the research-growth link, they reach for a small handful of specific examples in the life sciences or ICT.  Now maybe those leaders do actually know better and are just cynically pandering to politicians who have a narrow idea of what productivity growth actually is (“It’s new! It’s shiny!  Therefore it must be making Canada more productive!”).  The problem is that even though higher ed leaders are making these arguments in favour of “research” broadly defined, what politicians and policymakers tend to hear is “hey, we should double down on life sciences and ICT”.  Which is pretty much the opposite of what most of the research community wants.

So here’s my pitch: what we want and need is a Smart Canada.  We have no idea what the next big thing is going to be, nor does anyone else.  But our best bet to get ahead of the game is to be at or near the technological frontier in as many fields as possible.  And that means two things: first, it means adopting a very forward-looking posture on digital infrastructure and policy.  I don’t want to bore you with details, but we should be looking to imitate places like Estonia, South Korea and Singapore, and remembering that investing in digital infrastructure & digital public services > investing in digital companies.

Second, it means investing more in supporting and attracting talent.  And by talent I mean primarily people who can expand our country’s capacity in both research and development.  On the development side – that is, mostly in the private sector – that means a whole raft of changes to immigration (Dominic Barton made a number of helpful suggestions in this regard last year).  On the research side – mostly in academia – it means ensuring that we are creating an eco-system that can sustain basic research.  By and large, this means a greater emphasis on i) funding ideas and researchers rather than building infrastructure and ii) spreading the money around more widely than is currently the fashion.

(and yeah, there’s still an issue about ensuring ideas from basic research actually  do find their way into the economy eventually – that problem doesn’t go away.  But it’s kind of a last-mile problem, one you fix after the other pieces are in place).

Basically: support digital, support talent, support researchers and avoid confusing innovation policy with regional development or industrial strategies.  We can’t know for sure how to profit from tomorrow’s technologies, but this is a sure way for us to be as close as possible to the front of the line on new technology.  Think of it as an insurance policy, or if you’ll forgive a particularly ugly phrase, a way of “future-proofing” the country.

I admit it’s not quite as simple an equation as the Shiny Things = Growth algorithm which seems to have entranced the federal innovation ministry and in the short run it may be a tough sell.  But it’s a more durable and ultimately inclusive formula for linking growth and research.  We should give something like it a try.

September 26

Arguing for Science in All the Wrong Ways

You can tell it’s pre-budget consultation time in Ottawa because university Presidents are writing op-eds about the importance of research and backing the Naylor Report.  But man, are they ever unconvincing.

Let’s start with University of Toronto President Meric Gertler’s September 12th Toronto Star op-ed entitled “Don’t Let the World Pass Us By on Science”.  The sentiment is fine, I suppose, but the specific evidence Gertler uses to back up his claim is – to put it politely – weak.  It says that we are falling behind countries like “China, Switzerland and Singapore”; the evidence for this is that their universities are bouncing up various international rankings tables while Canadian universities are just staying stable.

Three points here.  First, the idea that Canada needs to spend billions on research so that U of T and a handful of other institutions can be rankings big-shots is perhaps the worst possible argument for supporting the Naylor report.  Second: “China, Switzerland and Singapore”?  What kind of trio is that?  If those three – which between them don’t have more than a dozen genuinely world-class universities – are the only ones we are worrying about, doesn’t that imply that in fact we are doing reasonably well compared to the traditional powerhouses like the US, UK and Germany?  Third, Gertler’s assertion that these three countries are “making aggressive investments in scientific infrastructure and researchers” just isn’t borne out by the data, at least over the last four or five years: in none of those countries are university budgets keeping pace with inflation and growth in student numbers (I’ll be showing this in more detail in a series of blogs over the next few weeks – stay tuned).

The second article of note saw Gertler team up with McGill’s Suzanne Fortier and UBC’s Santa Ono (let’s portmanteau them collectively as “Gerforno” to keep things simple) to pen an op-ed for the Globe and Mail called Ottawa must improve research funding – or risk losing the innovation race.  This one was a bit better as a pitch: now the rationale for investment is Canadian prosperity rather than U-15 bragging rights.  But the logic underpinning it is deeply problematic and points to the continuing poverty of the Canadian innovation debate.

The Gerforno argument runs like this: “hey, look at the breakthroughs Professors at our three fantastic universities have made: Geoffrey Hinton (artificial intelligence, U of T), Bernard Belleau (molecular pharmacology, McGill) and Michael Smith (biotech, UBC).  Their brilliant work in basic science led to huge advances that turned into big companies and lots of jobs, etc.  See?  Basic researcher equals innovation equals Canadian prosperity!”

Now, it’s definitely gutsy of Gerforno to make this argument on national economic grounds when both Hinton and Belleau sold their companies to foreigners (Google and Shire Pharmaceuticals) and Smith chose to found his company in Seattle.  But leaving that aside, as an argument this is still just arguing from anecdote. It doesn’t even attempt to draw conclusive links between basic science and economic growth.

Canada is a tiny country.  In terms of population, 0.5% of the world, in terms of GDP maybe 2%, in terms of science maybe 4%.  The firms that employ Canadians import – minimum – 95% of the technology with which our firms work.  Adding a billion or two to university research does not change that.  We will always be takers of technology, and – as importantly – most of the economic impact of ideas generated by Canadian scientists are going to occur outside our borders.  That’s how open science works in an open economy.

The effect of that extra billion or so on national levels of productivity is going to be tiny.  Sure, we might be able to generate a few more hi-tech or life-sciences companies, but that’s if and only if the rest of the innovation infrastructure – venture capital, skilled managers able to take companies from start-up to production to IPO, intellectual property regimes, tax structures, legislation limiting non-competes, etc – is all working as well.  And I think there’s a fair bit of evidence to suggest that all of this isn’t in working order.

At the national level, research capacity is a necessary but insufficient condition for innovation.  Universities, though, have taken to pretending that this is not true, that is sufficient and that a pot of gold lies at the end of the rainbow, if only we can get CIHR and NSERC budgets up another few percent.   They therefore have every reason to play down the possibility that more money on scientific research may be – from the point of view of innovation and economic growth – wasted.  Or that in the absence of the rest of the eco-system being in working order, more research money may be like pushing on a string.

Now, that’s not a reason on its own to dismiss the Naylor Report or the idea of increasing research budgets.  Maybe we ought to do it because science is good in and of itself and a more science-oriented society is a better society.  But if we’re going to justify science in the name of economic growth, we have to do better than arguing by anecdote and pretending that there’s some kind of straight unmediated line between research and growth.

Gerforno can do better than this.  Heck we can do better than this.  We have to.

September 19

Growth of Presidential Compensation

Let’s do another blog on this topic because everyone loves talking executive compensation.

Yesterday we looked at Presidential pay in international comparison and saw that Canadian university Presidents have fairly low pay compared to equivalents in other English-speaking countries.  But, one might argue, that’s the wrong metric.  Maybe the real problem isn’t high pay so much as a relatively quick rise in pay over the past few years.

That’s a fair argument.  But let’s see what the data says.

My data source here is the ever-handy CAUT Almanac (2005, 2010-11 and 2015-16 editions), from which we can obtain data on Presidential salaries for 2003, 2008 and 2013.  There are multiple observations for 58 institutions (44 in 2003, 54 in 2008 and 56 in 2013); any institution for which I have data for only one year is eliminated.  Now with numbers this small, one has to be careful about one or two outliers distorting averages either up or down.  With that in mind, figure 1 shows the evolution of average compensation for university Presidents in Canada.

Figure 1: Average Pay, University Presidents, Canada 2003-2013, in real 2013 dollars

Source: CAUT Almanac

What figure 1 shows is that between 2003 and 2008 average Presidential pay rose by 8% after inflation (or, about 1.6% per year).  However, between 2008 and 2013 the figure fell by a little less than 1%, meaning that for the decade as a whole the average annual increase was 0.68%.

Surprised?  Skeptical?  Well with datasets this small, it’s good to be careful.  Not all of these are observations are comparable.  In any given year, a few Presidents get hired and others leave their position.  For these people, the salaries & compensation as captured by the Almanac are not particularly helpful because their salary only covers part of the year.  In a couple of cases, you also get what look like one-off payments which inflate the salary.

To try and get around this problem, let’s look at the change between 2003 and 2008 for every institution for which we have data for both years:

Figure 2: Distribution of Real Presidential Salary Changes, 2003 to 2008

Source: CAUT Almanac

The highest value here is Acadia, and that’s clearly because the 2003 observation was for a President who was only came on board in September, thus giving her an artificially low number in the base year.  Similarly, most of the negative numbers are for people who came on board mid-way through the year in 2008, such as Alan Rock (Ottawa), Roseann Runte (Carleton) and Michael Goldbloom (Bishop’s).  But some of the negative numbers are also “resets” as universities bring compensation down when a new President is installed; for instance, Indira Samarasekara’s 2008 compensation was 28% lower than her predecessor’s in 2003.

Without a lot of fact-checking around appointment dates which I frankly have no interest in doing (free email guys: you get what you pay for) I can’t be sure exactly which Presidents fall into which category.  But assuming that the artificially high and artificially low observations more or less cancel each other out, looking at the median observations should give us a sense of what was going on at the typical institution.  As it turns out, the median here is 20%, compared to the 8% average we saw in figure 1: that’s not a “better” figure, by the way, just a different lens.  For 2008 to 2013, the median is 0% (same as the average), and for 2003 to 2013 the number is again 20%.

Just for amusement, let’s compare this for a second to what’s been going on with professorial pay. Again, the data source is the CAUT Almanac for the same years.  Guess what?  Between 2003 and 2013, the average rise in pay – after inflation – for full professors (the nearest comparator to University Presidents) was 23%.  I suspect that the rapid rise after 2008 has to do with fewer retirements and more professors staying on for more years and receiving annual pay rises.

Figure 3: Comparison of Changes in Presidential and Full Professorial Pay, 2003-2013

Source: CAUT Almanac

To sum up:  between 2003 and 2008, presidential pay was rising by somewhere between 1.5% and 3.7% per year over inflation, depending on how you look at it.  However, between 2008 and 2013 presidential pay stayed even with inflation.  Meanwhile, average pay for full professors rose steeply after 2008, and over the decade to 2003 to 2013, their average pay rises were higher than those for Presidents – substantially so if we take an average-to-average comparison.

So next time anyone complains about huge pay rises to executives, just remember that professorial pay has been rising faster.  Sauce for the goose, etc.


September 18

Presidential Compensation

Over the summer, the revelation that the University of Alberta paid Indira Samarasekera two full years of administrative leave at over $550,000 per year after the conclusion her ten-year (two-term) Presidency caused a series of snit-fits, the most notable one being this one from Paige MacPherson, the Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

As I’ve noted before (here and here), Canadian university Presidents are not that well paid, at least by the standards of other Anglosphere universities.  Paul Kniest, of Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union, helpfully put together a good international comparison which I reproduce below (the blog post from which it is taken is here).

Now those figures are in Australian dollars, but our currencies are close enough to par as to make no odds.  Also, yes, the Canadian number looks a little low; I think it’s because the CAUT Annual Digest – the source for the data – includes all Presidents, even if they are not serving a full year, so there are a few “partial” salaries which bring the average down.  My guess is that if you exclude those, you end up with a figure closer to New Zealand’s.  But we’re nowhere near our neighbours to the South.  For instance, the base pay of our highest-paid President (David Turpin) would place him about 250th in the US, or 118th among public university Presidents.  (Santa Ono, in case you’re wondering, took a cut in base pay of about 20% to move from Cincinnati to UBC).

I suppose one might argue that this is all a kind of “if all your friends were jumping off a bridge” argument.  There are other comparators one could use: hospital executives and senior public servants are the most obvious ones.  But even here, I’m not sure this is such a great comparison.  Neither of those are required to raise their own revenue from market and philanthropic sources to the extent a university President is.  After all, with provincial government funds now providing less than half of university funding in many cases, one could argue that fairer comparisons might be with private industry.  By this logic, some university Presidents – those say in Quebec or Newfoundland where provincial government foot well over half the bill – might be adequately or even over-paid, but equally the President of a place like U of T ($3 billion in revenue, less than a quarter of which is provincial grant) might be seen as grossly underpaid.

(I think this is probably right, btw.  I’d argue that the scandal in Presidential salaries is actually how narrowly banded they are.  The gap in executive pay between, say, UQ Abitibi-Temiscamingue and UBC should be a lot bigger because the latter is a hell of a lot of a bigger job).

The other favourite comparator is of course the Prime Minister/Premier (note that in the UK, the government is now proposing legislation to effectively prohibit university vice-chancellors from making more than the Prime Minister).  After all, he/she is in charge of the Whole Damn Country/Province, why should anyone in a public position make more?  There is some force to this (though one could apply it to the private sector too), but of course PMs and Premiers tend to make a lot of money in what amounts to deferred compensation – making speeches, sitting on corporate Boards, ambassadorships, etc.  But if there is one thing that drives people crazier about university Presidents than their salaries, it’s the idea of deferred compensation (as the Samarasekera snit-fit shows).

Presidents are mostly former academics.  Part of the academic compensation package is sabbaticals – time off from teaching every seventh year to pursue research interests.  As far as I can tell, the idea of “administrative leave” – that is, a fully-paid year off after a five-year term in administration – was originally thought of as analogous in terms compensation.  It’s not a perfect match of course – a year off after five years instead of six, full pay instead of 90% pay, etc, – but it’s close.

But some things about deferred pay weren’t analogous.  Turning the leave into lump-sum cash payments for instance.  David Johnston made off with over $1 million that way when he went to become Governor General without anyone saying “boo”, but when Amit Chakma tried the same thing at Western he got roasted.  So no one does that anymore.  In fact, a couple of contracts I’ve seen recently limit deferred compensation to a single year, even if the President serves for more than one term as President.

Are these perks similar to those seen in other countries, or are they Canadian universities’ way of surreptitiously bumping executive pay?  I can find no evidence of this kind of compensation in either the UK or Australia (which doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen; just that a couple of minutes’ googling on my part came up dry).  However, in the US, this kind of thing most definitely happens and on a much greater scale

Just to take a couple of examples found with a minimum of research: at the University of Florida, the former President got five years of deferred pay equal to his Presidential salary, though it was structured as a non-compete payment.  At the University of Michigan, the President receives one year’s deferred compensation if he stays at the institution – but he also is guaranteed a $2 million fund to start up a new laboratory.  In many cases, US universities (public and private) don’t offer salaried administrative leave, but do offer boatloads of “deferred payments” which are booked in the year they are earned, and counted separately from base salary (some examples here on p.3).  More broadly, US university Presidents also seem to benefit from a variety of other perks which may not be available to Canadian ones.

In other words, while our Presidents are well-paid, there’s no obvious reason to think they are vastly overpaid either.  And if we have a problem with the idea of deferred compensation, fine: just fold that extra compensation into their salaries during their term and be done with it.  Presidents could then save it, spend it, do what they want with it.  This arrangement would be clearer, cleaner and more transparent than what we do now.


February 13

If University Presidents had a Union

It occurred to me while writing that last piece about salary comparisons: what if University Presidents used the same set of arguments about salary that professors do?  What if we set their salaries as a function of what a comparator set of institutions were paying?

For this exercise, I have compared the presidential salaries at each of the top eight Canadian institutions in the Shanghai Academic Rankings of World Universities to those at the nearest comparator institutions among public universities in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia (for institutions outside the Top 100, where universities are grouped into bands of 50 or 100, I chose the “adjacent” institution by overall publication output).   The resultant comparators are shown below.

Canadian Universities and Closest Comparators in ARWU Rankings








I took data for Presidential salaries from a variety of sources.  For Canada, the data is from the ever-useful CAUT Almanac, except for l’Université de Montréal, which is from here.  These don’t yield perfect comparisons; one notable issue is that Alberta reports total compensation rather than salary, which makes Indira Samarasekara’s compensation look significantly higher than her comparators, for whom only data on salary is provided.  For the US, the data is from the Chronicle of Higher Education (via Berkeley to avoid the annoying paywall).  UK data is from the Times Higher Education Supplement, and Australian data is from The Australian.  Data for Australia and the UK are 2010-11, for the US it’s from 2009-10, and Canadian data comes from  the 2010 calendar.  Currencies have been converted to Canadian dollars using the 2011 Big Mac Index.  The results are shown in the figure below.

Figure 1: Salaries of Canadian University Presidents and Close Foreign Comparators













Here’s what we learn from Figure 1:

1)      Man, oh man, oh man, being a Vice-chancellor in Australia is a sweet deal.  Remember a few weeks ago when I asked why no Canadian institution had hired an Australian?  Apparently the answer is, “we can’t afford them”.

2)      There isn’t a straight line between university status and CEO pay in any country.  It’s never the top school that pays its President the most.

3)      In four of these comparisons, the Canadian President is the worst-paid among the comparators; in the other four, they’re the second-worst.  This is somewhat different than the situation among full-time academic staff, where the wage gap tends to go in the other direction.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting our Presidents could use a raise.  I’m simply pointing out that if Presidents used the same kind of arguments that faculty unions use to demand wage hikes, the data above could certainly be used to make a very persuasive case.  Sauce for the goose, and all.

Maybe “what the guy down the road earns” isn’t the be-all-and-end-all for salary comparisons.  Maybe we need some better benchmarks.

December 20

More Thoughts on Presidential Selections

A couple of points which I couldn’t quite jam into last week’s blog on University Presidents:

1) Where are the foreigners?   Why do we assume that only Canadians can run Canadian universities?  It’s fairly obvious from their actions that university Boards of Governors assume this.  And when we do want a “foreign” perspective, all we seem to do is repatriate Canadians (e.g.: Robert Birgenau at Toronto, Roseann Runte at Carleton, Doyle Anderson at FNU, etc.).

That’s a pretty poor showing for a set of institutions which claims pretensions to being world-class.  Granted, every institution has a local community to satisfy, but it’s not as though our universities are so peculiar as to be impenetrable to outsiders.  If central banking has become a sufficiently technocratic profession that someone can swap Ottawa for London with relatively little difficulty, why should university leadership be any different?   American universities aren’t shy about this: Runte’s passport didn’t cause a stir when she was at Old Dominion; even Oxford has appointed foreigners to the Vice-chancellorship (John Hood was a kiwi).

Forgive me for banging this drum again, but why exactly, if we want to be taken seriously in the internationalization department, are we not aggressively hiring foreign senior administrative staff who might actually give us a leg up in this area?  Why haven’t one or two universities poached an Australian or a Brit to run their operations?  They’d certainly have more experience than almost any domestic candidate in terms of running universities on a shoestring, and attracting foreign students.

It’s a mystery to me.

2) Are there better ways to choose Presidents?  A couple of people wrote to me last week to ask whether there wasn’t a better way to select Presidents than the current method – having a dozen people go into secret conclave with a headhunter and emerge 8 months later with a name.

In much of the world – including some Quebec institutions –  the model is a democratic one.  Put simply, faculty vote for their Presidents.  This tends to favour insiders (though Francois Tavenas was elected at Laval, while still employed at McGill), which isn’t always a good thing, since a lot of back-room deals can be made on the way to building a winning electoral coalition.  An in-between solution is to present a number of candidates to the university community in a town hall setting, prior to making a final decision.  It’s more open and democratic than the current system, but if you require job candidates to announce to the world that they’re open to leaving their present job, you deter a lot of good candidates who already hold important positions.

So, no, I’m not sure there is a better method to be honest.  Sorry.

December 13

The Presidential Merry-Go-Round

It was noted recently that there are some big presidential vacancies looming, most notably at Toronto, McGill, Victoria, and Dalhousie.  So who’s going to get these plum jobs?

At Dalhousie, of course, we already know the answer: It’s Richard Florizone – formerly the VP Finance and Administration at the University of Saskatchewan, who also had stints at the International Finance Corporation (part of the World Bank), Bombardier, and the Boston Consulting Group.

This wasn’t Florizone’s first attempt at becoming a university President – why he wasn’t selected to succeed Peter McKinnon at Saskatchewan remains uncertain. One possibility is that the university wanted a change in style (not uncommon after a three-term presidency, no matter how good the President is – and McKinnon was one of the best); many considered Florizone too close to McKinnon, stylistically, to have a chance.  Another possibility is that the faculty felt his academic credentials weren’t strong enough; Florizone has a PhD in nuclear physics from MIT, but he preferred the private sector to the tenure track.  Nothing wrong with that, of course: Florizone’s definitely got all the skills to be an excellent university President.  But in the world of university leadership, his lack of professorial rank is a bit of an oddity.

What about the other three?  At UVic, after 13 years of David Turpin, the university might well favour an outsider (as was the case with Saskatchewan).  It could either pick up a President from a smaller university (Eddy Campbell and Ray Ivany would both be great choices, but my guess is that neither is available), or an up-and-coming Vice-President Academic (Carl Amrhein? Maureen Mancuso?).  Victoria’s one of the country’s more interesting universities, so there should be no shortage of strong candidates.

Toronto tends not to hire from other Canadian universities so an appointment from abroad is a strong possibility – which means it’s very hard to call.  At McGill, there’s going to be a real temptation to try to bring Stephen Toope home from UBC, which would then require filling a vacancy on the west coast.   Personally , I think you’d want to do a sanity check on anyone wanting to move from UBC to Quebec these days, but the hometown pull might be enough to sway Toope.  At the same time, Daniel Woolf is coming to the end of his term at Queen’s, so he might be in-frame, as well. Of course, David Turpin could also be a good choice, assuming he’s not royally sick of the whole administration thing by now (though if Woolf moves, Turpin would have to be top of Queen’s wishlist).

Want to impress people with your prognostication skills?  Leave your guesses for the Vic, McGill and Toronto presidencies in the comments section.