Book Review: The Go-Getters’ Guide

If one of the keys to happiness is learning how the world works, University Leadership would be an essential text. It is wry, self-deprecating and likable. They might have marketed it as a self-help guide on governance – but that would have meant redesigning the cover, say with a thunderbolt and exclamation marks and a snappier title like Yes! You Can!

Instead readers are treated to very Canadian observations like this: “We are reluctant to declare high ambition, whether because we are unable to speak with one voice or we fear repercussions from falling short. Perhaps there is more to the amorphous cultural arguments than we care to admit: Canada is a solid, middle-of-the-pack performer because that is where Canadians are most comfortable. Even if true, however, middle-of-the-pack performance is no longer assured, if ever it was.”

Author Peter MacKinnon is former president of the University of Saskatchewan. He held the post for 13 years. MacKinnon took some shots. There were threatened strikes, and squabbles with legislators, and media accounts of how much he spent on travel. “University presidents do not have an official opposition – just an unofficial one,” he quips.

“I knew that university presidents often think their words are more influential than in fact they are,” MacKinnon writes. “In general, their audiences listen respectfully and occasionally not affirmatively; sometimes they may even applaud. It is tempting to conclude that an issue has been identified and framed and that those who are involved will follow up. The reality is that words are soon forgotten as members of the audience return to their daily tasks.”

The University of Saskatchewan is a good school. Its faculties of agriculture and environmental sciences are among the best. In postwar years its teaching staff grew five-fold. “Many of the new recruits were excellent; many were not,” MacKinnon writes. “The university’s productivity did not keep pace with its growth and its responsibilities as the only medical-doctoral university in the province.”

University Leadership naturally orients itself to campus life, though MacKinnon correctly observes this is not so different than other ventures. “Governments are large and complex, but so are universities,” he writes; “Like all human institutions, they have their peculiarities, vulnerabilities and weaknesses.”

“But their great strength lies in the fact that it is the merit of an idea that commands respect in a university – not a voice of command, a pronouncement on morality, or a threat of punishment. In a world that witnesses too many commands, pronouncements and threats, institutions that value ideas, debate and reasoned conclusions are beacons that give us confidence that we as human beings have a future and that it can be a bright one.”

Speaking of ideas: University Leadership proposes the nation’s schools like the country itself seek pre-eminence in selected fields. “Beauty exists in the eye of the beholder,” MacKinnon writes. “Pre-eminence is not. It means the best in the world”. He has no quarrel with soliciting corporate donations so long as donor agreements are public. He suggests plainer disclosure of student costs with identifiable returns, and is sharply critical of blandness. Canadian universities “tout greatness more often than it is deserved,” he says.

University Leadership is fresh and useful to anybody who yearns to know how the world works – without thunderbolts or exclamation marks.

By Holly Doan

University Leadership and Public Policy in the Twenty-First Century:  A President’s Perspective, by Peter MacKinnon; University of Toronto Press; 208 pages; ISBN 9781-4426-16110; $24.95

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