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Effective University Governance is Crucial to Civic Leadership

By Professor Susan Lea and Dr Paul Gentle

The Governing Bodies of institutions are pivotal to their success.  Universities transform individual lives and positively impact society through their education, research, and wider civic engagement.  Cities and regions fortunate enough to include a university see significant economic, social, and cultural benefit. However, accomplishment of this academic mission crucially depends upon the efficacy of the partnership between Board and Executive and is determined by the constructive contribution of both in pursuit of this important joint endeavour.

However, despite these efforts, we argue that yet more attention needs to be paid to critical questions affecting Board functioning, and the inextricable relationship between both the Board and the Executive, and between the Board Chair and Vice Chancellor/Principal.  Fundamentally, institutional sustainability and success are at stake.

sensitively evaluating the evolving character of a Board through both tangible measures and more qualitative indicators is key to optimising performance and ensuring institutional resilience

Questions to address include: How is the university’s governing body and its role perceived by those who lead and manage the institution? Does the Board have an embedded culture, or does it revolve around the personality of its Chair? How well is the distinction between governance and management understood and, crucially, operated in practice?  How do members of the university’s Executive approach information-sharing and the associated production of Board papers? How do non-Executive Board members view their own role in determining the university’s future? Are they well apprised of their duties and responsibilities? Are Board members’ behaviours engaged, professional and appropriate? 

Candid answers to these questions provide a lens through which to view the maturity of a Board as well as levelling insight into potential development required. Given the very real possibility that every individual member may have different expectations of how a Board should behave, sensitively evaluating the evolving character of a Board through both tangible measures and more qualitative indicators is key to optimising performance and ensuring institutional resilience. 

A significant challenge is that the time available to governing bodies to fulfil their statutory role and develop an appreciation of an institution’s strategy, operational plans and financial standing is constrained – making even more important the facilitation of focused high-quality interaction and operation at meetings Responsibility for building Board capabilitycan be ill-defined and opportunities for thoughtful reflection, appraisal and evaluation are often overlooked given the pressure of a full agenda.

So, the effective functioning and high performance of Boards is vital to an institution’s success.  Awareness of this imperative, and efforts to enhance the operation of Boards, has certainly grown. However, we argue that more needs to be done to enable Boards to achieve their maximum potential; an institution’s ability to flourish and thrive depends upon it.  

Almost always, members take their responsibilities seriously and care deeply about the institution they serve. Moreover, where developmental interventions have been applied, the impact on Board functioning is usually evident. We argue that, evaluating the effectiveness and success of the Board in achieving its objectives should be part of a Board’s duty.  In our experience, interventions that work particularly well – with the full Board or specific committees – include facilitated problem solving, structured strategic conversations and team coaching. Working sensitively into the core issues will realise benefits for individual members, for Board functioning and, importantly, for the institution and those it serves. and we would urge governors in our sector to recognise the benefits of taking up this challenge to build personal and institutional capability.

By Professor Susan Lea & Paul Gentle

Susan is a Governance and Executive Specialist. She has substantial experience of leading successful change in diverse universities through a range of senior leadership roles, most recently as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hull.

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last twelve years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in higher education.