Shock and surprise swept Concordia a week ago Tuesday after the university issued a press release that Claude Lajeunesse would be leaving at the end of October this year, two years into his five year contract as Concordia’s President.
Mohamed Shuriye was president of the CSU when Lajeunesse began his term at Concordia in August 2005. He said it was “weird” Lajeunesse should be terminating his contract so soon. “When [Lajeunesse] came, there was all this pomp and ceremony and now to have him go, it’s very sudden,” said Shuriye.
The reaction from the current executive was one of unequivocal relief. VP Communications Noah Stewart said the CSU “felt Lajeunesse was a fairly bad president for the students. He was one of the strongest advocates in Quebec for deregulating tuition fees. He didn’t create a positive atmosphere with faculty or staff. His vision of Concordia was somewhat out of sync with the reality of the university, and with the desire to maintain Concordia as an accessible university.”
At Ryerson University in Toronto, where Lajeunesse had served as president for 10 years before coming to Concordia, the news didn’t appear to be quite as much of a shock.
Ryerson Student Union President Nora Loreto said she had heard rumours that Concordia might soon be looking for a new president. “I’m not surprised,” said Loreto. “People have been watching Concordia and there have been rumours this was coming. I think one of the first times I heard [Lajeunesse would leave] was from a business professor in May,” said Loreta.
Tuesday morning “closed session”
What led to Lajeunesse’s “mutual agreement” to part ways with Concordia during an early morning, closed-session meeting of the Board of Governors on Sept. 18 is still a mystery.
University spokesperson Chris Mota could not point to any one, single reason that led to the premature end of Lajeunesse’s contract.
“I have heard nobody – anywhere – say [that] anything the President did was inappropriate [or] wrong,” said Mota in an interview last Friday.
She reiterated the statement that has been repeated by every paper in Montreal carrying the story: “I believe his vision is the same as the Board’s but there are different ways of getting to the goal.”
The closest she would come to venturing an opinion was to say the parting of ways could be due to management style.
“His management style was very different from his predecessor’s [Frederick Lowy],” said Mota. “The Board had a number of new members brought in over the last years . . . I just don’t think the two meshed.”
Mota also said that Lajeunesse may not have been moving fast enough for some board members’ tastes. “I think the Board wanted change faster on some level,” said Mota. “I have heard discussions on both sides, governors who argue that the strategic plan that we’re working on has not moved fast enough. Other members think it’s right on track.”
“But when it comes to specifics, I don’t have them. I don’t have the details and I won’t have them,” she concluded.
Mota couldn’t comment on what Lajeunesse’s severance pay would be as the terms of his contract are confidential. However, based on his current annual salary of $350,000, several people estimated he could be paid anywhere from $1 million to $1.5 million for the remainder of his contract.
The Man and CEO
When Lajeunesse arrived at Concordia he brought with him a highly lauded record of school management, particularly from the business perspective. After a decade at Ryerson, he was credited for having shifted the school from its grass roots as a polytechnic into a research-oriented university. Research spending had increased from $1 million to $10 million per year and the inner city school had undertaken about $210 million in capital projects. Lajeunesse had raised some $150-million to finance the school’s initiatives.
But not everyone was happy with the new Ryerson order. Loreta, who had been the RSU’s VP Education when Lajeunesse left, said that while the school was ripe for Lajeunesse’s changes, they also caused him to clash with the student union on many issues. There were pitched battles over prayer space on campus, rising tuition and ancillary fees, a referendum opposed by the students and a fight for their student centre, which the she said they “only managed to resolve in April.”
Concordia welcomed Lajeunesse with fanfare. Alain Benedetti, chair of the search committee that recommended Lajeunesse, released a statement saying their man had a “deep knowledge of teaching and research along with excellent management skills and [a] track record in managing change.”
Shuriye said he had no problems working with Lajeunesse: “He was available, he was cordial and [while] we didn’t necessarily agree on every issue . . . he was easy to deal with.”
But he also compared Lajeunesse to his predecessor, Frederick Lowy, who was “more than willing to talk. He was always ready to consult,” said Shuriye. “Lajeunesse had a different philosphy. I think his philosophy was, “I’m going to impose my will on you… and maybe I’ll consult with you afterward.”
Shuriye served on the Board of Governors for two years and said he didn’t get the sense that Lajeunesse was communicating to the Board the issues around campus.
“He sort of communicated to them [that] they had things under control, but not what the issues [with students] were,” said Shuriye.
“Lajeunessse seemed to be what the Board wanted. He was for tuition increases, [he was] for making Concordia more graduate-based and less undergraduate based, for advertisements on campus . . . so I don’t know if it was a personal disagreement, a lack of expectations, we’re not really getting any answers as to why the Board fell out with Lajeunesse,” said Shuriye
The public: a right to know?
The Gazette published an editorial Sept. 21 titled ‘We have a right to know why Lajeunesse is out’. The editorial appealed for a full disclosure of Lajeunesse’s termination on the grounds that Concordia is a public institution and, as such, there is “little excuse for not letting the public know the real story.”
Also on Friday, an open letter from the Concordia University Faculty Association (CUFA) asked the Board of Governors for a “rational explanation for this decision.” The letter called the manner of his departure “disturbing” and the absence of transparency “particularly worrisome.”
CUFA asked if, after all the effort expended to select and hire a president, it is justified to dismiss him “with no process, no discussion, no explanation?” The letter concludes with a call to the Board of Governors to provide some answers if they are to “retain the confidence of its community.”
The search for a new president
Mota said it “it’s business as usual” while Lajeunesse is still here. A search committee will soon be struck to find a replacement, with a target of having someone in place by September 2008.
The CSU will be allotted one space on the committee, which will be filled by CSU President Angelica Novoa. The CSU hopes to find someone “who is more willing to work with students, faculty and staff and [who will] push for accessible education at Concordia,” said Stewart.
In the meantime, the Board of Governors will appoint an interim president and ratify him or her at the next meeting on Oct. 18. Mota said the appointment will be done in closed session. “Once the candidate is approved and becomes the interim president, they will make that public,” said Mota.