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Trent Presidential Search: University in Search of an Identity

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Trent University’s Presidential Search Committee has released a “position profile” and advertisement for the ensuing hunt for a new university president and vice-chancellor.

These documents are the culmination of months of consultations, the latest stage in the long presidential search process, and must be understood in the context of Trent’s perennial search for an institutional identity.

Amrop Knightsbridge, a high-powered “Global Executive Search” consulting firm, has been contracted to manage the search process, in concert with the Presidential Search Committee, which is composed of faculty, staff, and members of the University Senate and Board of Governors, with the Board—constituting the majority on the Committee.

The search process has been in full swing since mid-September, and aims to have a final candidate selected by February, to be publicly announced in early spring.

Invested by the Board of Governors last March with a ‘mandate’ to find a “transformational leader,” the job posting sets a high bar for its envisioned ideal candidate: that person will have “graduate and scholarly credentials;” “executive level experience in a postsecondary institution;” will be “articulate, consultative, strategic with a commitment to action;” and have “demonstrated competence in financial management.”

Encroaching on Trent’s 50th anniversary, and having been instructed by Queen’s Park to present a clearly ‘differentiated’ education model in order to justify its own existence and need for sustained funding, Trent is in search of a vision and will expect the incoming president to be the acolyte and proselytizer for that vision.

As stated in the mandate, “Internal leadership will be needed to ensure that Trent’s identity is clear.”

What is that vision? We’re not so clear on that, but we’re hopeful our new president will be able to tell us, and that the “president will provide inspiring internal leadership that supports academic excellence and clearly defines Trent’s identity.”

Just so we’re clear on that, the mandate repeats that the president’s chief responsibility will be to “clarify, articulate and celebrate the university’s distinctive identity and promote its brand of student-centred education and research excellence.”

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that, at Trent, it’s all about the students. (Am I being sarcastic? I’m honestly not sure.)

What does the brave soul who might take on this Herculean presidential task have to look forward to? The “opportunity to lead this illustrious institution at a time of challenge and complexity,” and a mandate that is “decidedly transformational.”

David Marshall, the university president who shepherded both Nipissing and Mount Royal University through the process of becoming universities, was brought in by Knightsbridge as a consultant in the formulation of this Position Profile, so be advised: the prospect (and specter) of transformation is saturating the air.

The idea of a powerful, assertive, ‘transformative’ university president will, no doubt, be received by many in the Trent community with a great deal of apprehension.

The last president that might have warranted that designation managed to close the beloved downtown Peter Robinson College, undermined the autonomy and authority of the colleges and senate, and have several students arrested, just to mention the highlights from the sordid, lengthy tally of Bonnie Patterson’s gruesome and/or dubious achievements.

Transformation is, nonetheless, what Trent must achieve to survive.

With Ontario running a deficit for the foreseeable future, Queen’s Park has made it clear that provincial funding for education will not be increasing enough to even keep pace with inflation, thus “the sustainability of postsecondary education may be at risk.”

The government has latched onto the idea of differentiation as the silver bullet that will (somehow) allow the province to maintain its standing as an educational powerhouse, while contributing significantly less funding to its institutions, cumulatively.

At the beginning of next semester, I’ll explain, in depth, the province’s proposed Differentiation Policy Framework and Trent’s proposed Strategic Mandate Agreement.

In the meantime, ye have been warned: the times are (constantly) changing.

We asked various people around Trent about what they wanted in a new President. You can read their answers here.

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