“A big decision and a very difficult decision.”
Those were the words from St. F.X. President Kent MacDonald on Tuesday, March 19; the day it was announced he was not renewing his contract with St. F.X. after five years in the role of president.
“It took a long time to make and a lot of reflection, a lot of thinking,” MacDonald, a New Glasgow native and St.F.X. graduate, continued. “Really tough to come to the point where I ended up thinking this is the right thing for the university and, probably, for myself as well … I hope for myself.”
MacDonald’s contract is up on July 31 of this year.
“Yesterday was really tough,” he said. “I informed the human resources committee; I had informed Mike Boyd, our current [St. F.X. Board of Governors] chair, several weeks ago that this was on my mind but, yesterday, Mike and I came together with the human resources committee of the board.
“The day was really tough because there were two very important groups that I shared it with; the President’s Council – the Deans, Registrar and the vice-presidents; that’s the group I worked most closely with. Quite frankly, I had difficulty getting through that meeting, sharing it with them, and that was followed with a meeting with the board of governors and letting the whole board know.
“So it was an emotional day because I love this place and I’m proud of what we accomplished. I look forward to moving to the lofty status of committed alumnus in the years ahead.”
Asked about the timing of his decision, MacDonald noted it was a “couple of factors.”
“Mark Wallace, more than five years ago now, was board chair and, on behalf of the board, he offered me my five-year contract,” he said. “My first-term as president is coming up this summer so the dilemma I had was, as much as I love the place and there is always going to be work to be done, the question I was faced with was; am I prepared for another five years?
“Giving some thought to that I started to think about the challenges we had but, mostly, I focused on the many successes which have taken place because of the faculty, staff, alumni, donors; I think the list is relativity long. So, I think, St. F.X. is in a different place than it was five years ago and my sense is that it was time to pass the torch to someone else to carry on the work.”
MacDonald noted the other aspect came from really thinking deeply about, when is the right time to leave?
“I’m hyperaware that it’s really important for a university president, and I say this because this is an area I researched myself, to be aware of when is the right time to leave,” he said.
“There is no doubt there is more work to be done, but I was just really aware that this was, probably, the right moment to let someone else come in with a different set of skills and experiences to move things forward … but there is always doubt in that as well. I’m hoping this is the right time.
“I’m going to miss the community and the university greatly, and, within that context, the people. So I’m hoping I’m going to look back in a few years and say that was a mistake leaving,” he added with a chuckle, about the ‘mistake’ quip.
“But my sense is, because it has not been a rushed decision, it has taken place with a lot of conversations with [his wife] Mary-Ellen over the last few months … it just confirmed that was the right time.”
Having noted the people and work he’ll miss, MacDonald talked about annual days on the St. F.X. calendar he’ll miss being president for. He started by acknowledging every day he spent meeting with alumnus, from around the world, was special.
“It’s always great to go out and meet alum. I met alum from across the world; in London, in Dubai we had a reception, so I’ll miss that but there are three [days] that I’ll miss and think a lot about.
“The first one has to be move-in day; the day starts at 7 a.m. and I, basically, shake the hands of people until about 2 p.m. in the afternoon, welcoming each new student and their family to the university. I really enjoyed it,” he said, adding people will emphasize it’s seven hours of just greeting people but that, for him, the time flies by.
“The second one is the Feast of St. Francis Xavier or St. F.X. Day or, as we refer to it, X Ring Day, on Dec. 3. Just to see the joy in the seniors’ eyes of getting that ring. It’s a symbol of success, perseverance, persistence and of joining the Xaverian community at a deeper level. I’ll really miss that … I’ll just have to participate in some other way.”
The final day is one MacDonald still has on the final days of his time as university president.
“Both fall and spring convocation because that’s, ultimately, where those students who I shook hands with four years earlier [end up],” he said.
“They arrive four years earlier just out of high school; they grow up, mature, make mistakes - sometimes we hear about those other times we don’t - but that is part of the process of coming to a residential university; it’s to have all of these other experiences besides what happens in a class room.
“So to see them mature and the positives things they do for the community; and then to see them walk across the stage for the last time, that’s something which is hard to describe.
“At a place like St. F.X. you get to know them … and then they’re off, they’re finished and gone. That will be another time I’ll miss, for sure.”
MacDonald talked about the role he would offer to play with finding his successor. He noted it would be more after the selection.
“Often what happens is the outgoing person wants to see someone just like themselves,” he said, explaining why he thinks it’s best not to be part of the selection.
“It’s the board’s responsibility; the only employee they oversee. They hand over all the day-to-day operations to that person. What I’ve indicated is a few things; number one is I’m absolutely committed to supporting them in any way and that means giving them insights on where I think the university is and some of the things it needs.”
Another aspect MacDonald talked about was pride in the leadership team at St. F.X.
“Every single one of them showed up after I did and I think they’re extremely strong and competent,” he said. “The reality is, I’m on the road a lot with this job and they’re running the university, so it’s in good shape.”
The third point he noted when it comes to succession is making himself available to whomever is chosen.
“I’m happy to share any advice or insights to make their job more successful and easier,” he said.
“There are long days in this type of work and times, certainly I felt, when you’re sitting in the office late at night wondering if certain decisions were the right ones. Sometimes, just being able to pick up the phone to ask someone for advice is really helpful. I know I did with people I really respect and so, I’ll simply say to the successor, whomever that might be, I’m available if they want to chat.”