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University governance: Some interesting questions from America

by Frank Toop MBE | Jun 25, 2019 | Governance & Policy

In a recent Wonkhe article, Peter Eckel of the University of Pennsylvania raises some interesting questions from American experience. He argues that, “like boards in England, American boards too often have been focused on oversight. It’s the essential stewardship role of governance. Yet, such a narrow focus that reviews reports, signs off on proposals, ensures compliance and ticks boxes is a lost opportunity. Too many boards in America… are mired in mediocrity driven by such a focus.”

He poses a quick quiz – “Which of the following apply to your governing board?

  • Much, if not most, board meetings are taken up by presentations.
  • Meetings tend to follow the same, expected agenda.
  • The board is polite with each other, prizing congeniality over collegiality.
  • The same few board members dominate most discussions; and when they stop talking, discussions tend to end.
  • The most consequential of institutional issues are addressed outside the board meetings, rather than inside it”.

I suspect that too many colleagues will recognise some of these behaviours in their Councils. He goes on to argue that board time is limited and precious and to be a well-performing board it is essential to plan agendas and ensure that time is spent appropriately on the separable aspects of oversight, problem-solving and strategy.

To my mind this emphasises the increasing need for regular governance effectiveness reviews which go well beyond compliance and challenge how the board is spending its time. This is particularly important when the sector is facing unprecedented challenge and the press and Parliament are questioning how much confidence the public can have in their Universities. It does not look good to read last week from UCU research that there are still 9 universities who have not removed their Vice-Chancellor from their Remuneration Committee.

The CUC Governance Code states “Governing bodies need to adopt an approach of continuous improvement to governance in order to enhance their own effectiveness.” The CUC recommends a review every 4 years and often reviews happen because one is due under the Code. I would argue that the culture needs to change to where Councils proactively see the benefits of regularly considering their performance and seeking ways of improving their effectiveness. External review with the benefit of examining best practice in the sector and outside the sector is useful, but ensuring there is a culture of continuous improvement between these reviews is even more important. This requires adequate resourcing of the governance function and an open-minded willingness on the part of Councils but especially the Chair, Vice-Chancellor and Secretary to be self-critical and to experiment.

Peter Eckel asks some basic but useful questions to start this process:

  • “What does the board do frequently that adds tremendous value to the institution?
  • What does the board do frequently that adds little value to the institution?
  • What does the board do infrequently that adds tremendous value? (And how can you do more of this and less of point two?)
  • How much agreement exists among board members as to the answers above?

He concludes: “Boards that work well can add value. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true: poor performing boards can become institutional distractions, which few can afford”.

Frank Toop is a Consulting Fellow for Halpin – experts in higher education governance.