ON THE RUN - Board protects TRU with Scherf firing

Story:By SUSAN DUNCAN

Daily News Staff Reporter

Former TRU president Kathleen Scherf had no difficulty with one aspect of her job. She communicated well with university students.

That may seem to be of major importance for the president of a university, but while it's a bonus, it's not a high priority. That's a role faculty and student recruitment co-ordinators can handle.

The president must instil confidence at many levels. Overseas partners, senior administrators and community donors are three essential groups where the president must be viewed as credible and capable.

While students and even some members of faculty and the local community may have found Scherf's manner of speech, pink-streaked hair and, at times, goofy behaviour, endearing, it wasn't viewed quite as tolerantly in other important circles.

Initially, her complete contrast to the low-key dignified Roger Barnsley seemed to be just what the doctor ordered. An energetic, vibrant woman was an exciting addition to campus.

On Monday, however, the board of governors indicated the outgoing personality was accompanied by a lack of leadership skills and judgment that was not conducive to TRU. They fired Scherf with a severance package of $268,000 and returned the calm hand of Barnsley to oversee the university again for the interim.

Although Scherf said she was surprised and other people indicated surprise, a few of us who have been observing her antics with interest for the past year were not.

The first time she howled "TRU Rocks," it was amusing, even uplifting. Here was someone who was adding a bit of life to a growing university.

Later, the cheer wore thin, although it was minor compared to her seeming inability to recognize what behaviour was appropriate for which audience.

The first time I wondered whether Scherf's days were numbered was last November at the former president's retirement banquet. The last time was just last week when she said she turned over an expensive gift from an overseas client after an uproar ensued over other TRU staff accepting expensive Prada bags.

It's become a side issue now, but it should have been obvious to any university employee given an expensive gift that rather than offend the giver, turn it over to the university where it could be auctioned off for the benefit of students. Why would anyone need to be told this or ordered to do it through policy?

Back to Nov. 3, 2008.The Independent Centre was packed with university supporters, most over 50 years of age and many from the business community. Scherf made a bit of a silly speech about Barnsley, the guest of honour, which was largely unremarkable until she swore, not once but twice.

I'm no prude, but I was somewhat startled to hear the president of the university using profanity before that crowd. A TRU manager also commented on her language, suggesting "they" were going to have to get her to tone down the use of obscenities at public occasions.

Saying "sh-t" in a speech may seem insignificant in this day and age, but it's not something that's going to impress donors who might be thinking about sending a little cash TRU's way.

Then there were the rumours that she was dating TRU's in-house counsel, John Sparks, something that turned out to be more than a rumour and a choice that had to concern the board.

Whether Scherf and Sparks continued their relationship is unimportant. That she would enter into a personal relationship with a person who reported to her as president was not good judgment. The fact that Sparks also reports to the board on issues, which could also include the president, is a conflict of interest.

And because Scherf was Sparks's boss, this was solely her fault. It left her and the board open to a charge of harassment.

Other members of the senior administrative team were also less than impressed with Scherf. Cyndi McLeod of TRU World - and a highly valued employee because of the money she brought to TRU through her overseas work - reportedly left because she had lost confidence in the new president.

The worst thing the new head of any organization can do is sweep in and overpower the very people who have been an integral part of the growth of that company.

Scherf alienated her senior administrators, which was a serious mistake. She had a plan, but it did not include consulting with long-standing TRU builders and for whom the board of governors had great respect.

Her flippant way of addressing certain staff members as "my bitches" may not have been a firing offence, but it didn't help her case in the final review.

The death knell for her presidency was losing the trust of those senior administrators who may, one by one, have left TRU and that was not something donors or governors wanted to see.

The generous severance package was an act of good faith by the board, but it may not be enough for Scherf. She would have been given the opportunity to resign and save face. The fact that she didn't suggests she may intend to take legal action.

It was undoubtedly a tough decision for the board to dismiss its high-profile president after just one year. The evidence, however, shows she was just not the right fit for TRU.

Susan Duncan is city editor of The Daily News. Her column appears Friday. Email her at sduncan@kamloopsnews.ca.

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