Manitoba's top college has seen an exodus of senior staff, with seven longtime officials leaving in the three years since Stephanie Forsyth became president.

Forsyth came to Red River College in June 2010 from Northwest Community College in British Columbia.

Since 2010, four long-serving vice-presidents left Red River College, including one with 22 years of service and other with 16 years.

As well, three directors have left the college, some having served up to 11 years there, since Forsyth took over as president.

Only one of Red River's original executive members from three years ago remains, while three of the vice-president positions have been filled by candidates from B.C.

"It's quite unusual, I think, to have a major turnover of senior administration when there's a new president," said James Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

"Oftentimes if there was a president in waiting and didn't get the job, that individual might leave. But for there to be a major turnover of senior people is quite unusual."

Severance payment amounts unclear

CBC News filed a request under Manitoba's Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to Red River College on Oct. 17, asking for the amount of severance paid out in the last three years.

While the college cashed CBC's cheque and processed the application, it denied the request on Nov. 18 and issued a refund.

However, CBC News obtained some lump-sum compensation figures through the Public Sector Compensation Disclosure Act.

A severance expert who looked at the compensation figures said it appears that Red River has paid nearly $500,000 to the seven individuals who left their positions.

It's not clear how much of that amount is severance, since the figures are lump sums and don't indicate what percentage would be vacation pay, pension or overtime — information that would have been provided had the FIPPA application been approved.

The officials who left Red River declined comment. All have secured new employment or contracts almost immediately after leaving the college.

College going through change, says president

College insiders told CBC News that some of the officials were pushed out, while some decided to leave on their own terms.

When asked why so many executives have left, Forsyth said the college is going through change like any other organization.

"We now have a team that is a really dynamic group of folks. We're proud to be working with them. They're doing super work with our new strategic plan," she said in an interview.

"It's a change of life that goes through all businesses."

Forsyth would not say how many of the officials, if any, were fired, only saying that "their reasons are their reasons and that's confidential information."

"We're a growing enterprise, we've done lots of growth in the last little while, and people are moving on for their own reasons," she added.

Education Minister James Allum agreed with Forsyth's view that the college has simply been undergoing change.

"I think change at senior levels in any organization is natural and inevitable. It would happen in the Province of Manitoba, it happens at the CBC, it would happen at Red River as well," Allum said.

"So I regard that as inevitable normal change that happens and the introduction of new folks with new ideas is never a bad idea in a place that has so much good going on."

Cleaning house or butting heads?

Turk said generally speaking, there are two reasons why there would be such a big turnover in staff at a post-secondary institution.

"One reason is that the board of governors, in hiring the president, has really given her a licence to solve some serious and ongoing problems within the institution, which often means a major change of personnel," he said.

But the provincial government has not had any concerns with the way Red River has been operating before Forsyth was appointed, said Allum.

"Since 1999, the college has grown and evolved and developed in really spectacular ways," he said, citing low tuition rates and the college's expansion in recent years.

Turk said the other possible reason for a large turnover in senior staff is conflict related to management style.

"Sometimes when there is this unusual turnover, it's because the president is very difficult or has a management style that other senior administrators have trouble adjusting to and they leave," he said.

If that is the case, Turk said the college would have a problem because it's losing administrators it has relied on for a long time.

"It makes it harder to attract people to replace them because the reputation of the new management style gets out, and so it can be harmful if that's the cause of it," he said.

Management style questioned

Current and former employees told CBC News there has been a morale problem at Red River, while staff and union officials at Northwest Community College indicated similar concerns during her tenure there.

Insiders expressed concerns about Forsyth's management style, accusing her of interfering and micromanaging.

But Forsyth said she has not heard any criticisms of her management style.

"I think people are really welcoming of the style that I bring," she said.

When asked to describe her management style, she said, "It's very humanistic, it's very transparent, it's accountable, it's shared leadership across the college.

"It's based on trust. It's based on humility, compassion — compassion is big for me — and I like to call it relationship-focused," she added.

"We really care about every single person that works there, and I try to get out and touch as many people as I can in my given day."

President says she's being accessible

In response to those who believe there is a morale problem at Red River College, Forsyth said she has been accessible and transparent with information.

"This year I started blogs … and tweets and putting out newsletters every month and walking the halls, trying to be really accessible to people so that they can voice their concerns if they have those," she said.

"I have a real open-door policy. I try to get to all the campuses all the time. So we just try to be much more engaged with the people who are working there."

Forsyth said Red River College is a large organization, and change is never easy for some people, but she takes the relationship she has with each person "very seriously" and is working hard to engage as many people as possible.

Both Forsyth and Allum maintain that Red River has not suffered by the loss of the seven long-serving officials, insisting that the college is on the right track and has the right management team to meet the future.

The president of the Red River College Students' Association told CBC News she is satisfied with the college's leadership and did not want to comment on the amount of severance paid out in the last three years.