A president under fire

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 30 1998

A president under fire

Ann Dowsett Johnston November 30 1998

A president under fire

Ann Dowsett Johnston

He is a brilliant scientist, a pioneering researcher who has explored the mysteries of living cells. He spent 20 years creating the first chemical synthesis of ribonucleic acid, developing the anti-viral drug Ganciclovir and the chemistry for the first commercial gene machine along the way. And as the man who took the reins at Acadia University in 1993, he has been the driving force behind one of the most innovative integrations of high-tech into the undergraduate classroom, the award-winning Acadia Advantage program.

How is it, then, that president Kelvin Ogilvie is now seen by many as Acadia’s major disadvantage?

In the small town of Wolfville, N.S., the past year has been one of the most rancorous in the school’s 160year history. Faculty, staff, students and alumni have all questioned Ogilvie’s leadership. In May, the students brought a motion to the board of governors, requesting a full review of the president.

At the same time, the board received a letter from the faculty association expressing a lack of confidence in the president and support for the student motion. The board of governors overwhelmingly supported Ogilvie. Only two weeks ago, as the university hosted an open house for future students, the executive of the faculty association issued a bulletin to the national press putting a bounty on the president’s head: they would donate $100,000 to the university’s capital campaign if Ogilvie resigned.

Last Tuesday night, as the president hosted an alumni cocktail party on the 40th floor of the Royal Bank Tower in Toronto, the faculty association rejected the gimmicky bounty proposal, but adopted a new resolution of non-confidence in Ogilvie’s leadership. On the same evening, 325 alumni met at the Wolfville school. They passed a motion to call on Acadia’s board of governors to “work towards a restoration of the environment of trust, integrity and fairness.” As well, they tabled a motion calling for Ogilvie’s resignation, to be revisited in the future. Says Wendy Elliott,

class of 75, “There was an amazing feeling of democracy.”

Democracy is exactly what many feel has been missing at Acadia. Detractors call Ogilvie autocratic. One of his most fervent supporters refers openly to his management style: “He has an ego that gets him into trouble, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly. But he’s also running a budget deficit, and has a strong vision for Acadia in the 21st century.”

Why did a brilliant researcher at McGill move home to run a small undergraduate school? “In the 1980s, it became clear that so-

ciety was no longer going to throw money at universities,” says Ogilvie. “I was concerned that most would not make the changes they needed to.” His vision for Acadia is ambitious: ‘To become unique in the world, a small university recognized as the Stanford or Oxford of liberal undergraduate institutions.”

At the heart of that vision is the Acadia Advantage program, using laptops to enhance the learning environment. By applying information technology to the classroom, professors spend less time imparting knowledge and more time collaborating with the students, helping them evaluate what is before them. ‘This was not a case of going into the IT candy store and grabbing things off the shelf,” says Ogilvie. “This was a strategic development.”

But many who applaud Ogilvie’s unique vision are critical of his ability to broker support. When the faculty was on the brink of striking last year, some complained that

the administration was trying to impose technology from above. For three months, many worked to rule, pulling the plug on the Acadia Advantage. Eventually, a new clause was added to the collective agreement, saying that while professors must be committed to exploring educational technology, each can ultimately exercise their own pedagogical judgment.

Is the threat of technological change driving the discontent in Wolfville? “The unions have a national agenda to ensure that they have control of the universities,” says Ogilvie, “and we are standing up to that agenda.” Beert Verstraete, the new president of the faculty association, began the year with high hopes, but is now pessimistic. “Most of us have embraced the Acadia Advantage,” he says. “But the president is very isolated from the community. I thought I could do some bridge-building, but it is clear that it was only cosmetic.”

Whether running a small liberal arts school, or a large research-oriented institution, all university leaders must tackle the critical job of consensusbuilding. Strong leaders govern by getting others to buy into their vision. And in a community the size of Wolfville, population 4,000, where the university is the primary employer, it is crucial to put a human face on change.

Recently, Jim Gray (class of 73) decided to help pitch in and help. A senior consultant with National Public Relations in Toronto, Gray specializes in media training and crisis communication. Last Tuesday, he did some presentation training with Ogilvie before the Toronto alumni event, preparing the president for “a worst-case scenario.” As it turned out, the Toronto audience was approving.

But back in Wolfrille, it’s another story. There is a power struggle for the university itself, and a sorry lack of peace. Is this a witch-hunt, the persecution of a change agent? A case of an alienated leader with a deficit of people skills? Or a little of both? Verstraete and new student leader Chris Houston are both disheartened. Says Houston, a fourth-year business student and a fan of the Acadia Advantage program, “Can we please just get on with why we’re here?”

Ogilvie, who starts his second six-year term next July, is determined to see his vision through. “There is a real campaign to get rid of me here,” he says, unblinking. “The problem is, I’m strong. I’m not corruptible. The proof of what I’m doing will come when our graduates start hitting the world.” No doubt. But for the moment, the mood in Wolfrille is black.