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From compliance to curiosity: governing for the future

From across the Atlantic, American academic Peter Eckel proposes a fresh framework to transform the way governing boards approach their work and decision making.
This article is more than 4 years old

Peter Eckel is Senior Fellow and Director of Leadership Programs at Penn AHEAD in the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education

Here is a simple proposition: The governing boards of universities can be adding more value by approaching their work differently. This is a point my colleagues and I have been advancing in America that has relevance for UK universities as well.

From America, we have been paying attention not only to the government issues facing the UK (thanks to Brexit), but also the governance issues facing UK higher education (thanks to Wonkhe). One doesn’t need to go into depth on the challenges facing UK universities that impact university governance and on which governance should have an impact. Simply looking at the headlines provides ample evidence – financial stability; TEF and the student experience; government engagement (overreach?); online safety; mental health; tech spending; vice chancellor compensation.

Higher education in the U.S., like in the UK, continues to face significant challenges for which there is not an easy path forward. Our headlines read a bit like a crime novel – admissions scandals at elite universities; financial cliffs and pending closures of less selective institutions; turmoil over free speech and racial inclusion; food insecurity among students. Just to name a few.

Specifics aside, the magnitude of challenges on both sides of the Atlantic is what creates some parallels. It is also what suggests the need for different ways of working. Administrators and academic staff quickly come to realise this (although some more quickly than others). However, the third party of the traditional governance triumvirate, governing boards, are often slower to the uptake. But once awakened, boards have the potential to add value in new ways as institutions forge ahead.

Oversight and more

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, my colleague Cathy Trower and I argue, are mired in mediocrity driven by such a focus. The poorly performing boards, if not disruptive boards, are the ones that tend to garner the headings, but the reality is that most boards that underperform are not of this ilk. Instead, they simply sleepwalk through their work – somnolent boards. Might the same might be said of the governing boards of some UK colleges and universities?

Here’s a quick quiz. Don’t think too hard about the answers. 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.

If this resonates, your board is not alone. What you are likely to find is that the board is bored and likely stuck, working in old habits. How would your board answer these questions?

  • 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?

Most boards underperform (or really, under-contribute) not because they don’t know what to do or are misguided in their efforts, but because practices and habits that supported meaningful governance in the past have become outdated as the context changes. And the context of English higher education has and will continue to change. The more intentional the board; the more intentional and beneficial the governance.

Pivoting towards the future

To oversimplify, boards have three broad categories of work: oversight; problem solving; and strategy-focused work. Each of these dimensions requires a different collective mindset within the board, and different types of meeting agendas to support diverse engagement.

Oversight asks boards to adopt an analytic perspective: How well did the university do on its budget projections? Are students of different backgrounds graduating at similar rates?

Problem-solving requires an inquisitive mindset: Why the high turnover of women academics? What is the university doing to protect students from online abuse? How do we prepare for international student recruitment post-Brexit?

Finally, strategy or future-focused work. This is the “problem-seeking” role that boards can play in partnership with management and with faculty leaders that requires an exploratory approach: What might AI mean for managing the university? What is the future of work in our region and how do we prepare graduates? Boards likely have a well-honed capacity in one or two of these types of engagements but developing the dexterity to work well across all three is now needed.

This three-part framework can guide a conversation by the board and with management about the board’s work: Over the past two or so years, what percent of time did the board allocate across these three dimensions? It is that the right allocation of time for the future? How well does the board do each element? Is it better at oversight, than say strategy or future-focused work? What evidence supports your assertions?

Time is a gift of finite quantity

Boards that recognise the need for change are moving in the right direction. Talking about how they spend their time is helpful. Following the discussion about time allocation, the board should focus on its meetings and meeting structure. Time is a highly valuable commodity in the boardroom, making sure it is invested wisely is important (note the language).

Boards that make a difference are intentional about their meetings. They have explicit goals for meetings: What does the university need from the board? What does the board need to accomplish and why is this important?

This intentionality can carry through to the individual items on the agenda. Is the item for discussion and decision, advice and input, or for the board’s information? For example, a board discussion about enrolment might be to:

  1. Inform the board of demographic trends;
  2. Engage the board in a discussion about the ramifications for the institution;
  3. Engage the board in strategising about how to expand the reach of the admissions office. One topic, three different conversations. The more explicit board leaders can be about why they are spending board time on each issue the better.

Finally, value-adding boards ask valuable questions. Such questions can encourage constructive conversation about complex issues. We want boards to be curious, a characteristic often missing in the boardroom. Developing the capacity to ask is an art and a skill. It often is much easier to direct than to inquire, but also less impactful.

Collaborative governance

The future will surely require many heads and hands, not fewer, with the ability to work together toward the greater institutional good. Boards that work well can add value. Unfortunately, the inverse is also true: poor performing boards can become institutional distractions, which few can afford. Effective governance requires contributions of boards as well as contributions from management, staff and student representatives.

That said, rather than approach governance as domains to be demarcated with different roles, responsibilities and contributions; a better approach is to think how governance can be synthesised. Such collaboration in the boardroom and between the board, the vice chancellor and staff and student leaders can add that sought-after enhanced capacity necessary for uncertain and challenging times.

One response to “From compliance to curiosity: governing for the future

  1. An interesting, relevant and timely article.

    The assessment of what constitutes an effective governing body or otherwise in HE remains complex and contentious. There is a range of views spanning from those who think recent changes to HE governance have been unduly influenced by thinking about governance in other sectors and which threaten traditional benefits of collegiality, through to those who believe that governing bodies are not strategic enough or do not provide sufficient challenge to executive teams.
    Failures of governance can occur in organisations where the processes of governance are well developed and meet existing sectoral codes so it is essential to think about effectiveness in terms of ‘what boards do’ but also ‘how boards work’ and the value that they provide.

    Advance HE (formerly the Leadership Foundation) first developed a framework for conducting independent governance reviews of universities in 2010, with the most recent revision published in early 2017

    The Framework takes account of these three inter-related elements:

    + The enablers of an effective governing body are the factors that provide the foundations for effective governance and the building blocks on which governance rests. Without these enablers being in place it is highly unlikely that a governing body could be effective. However, the enablers by themselves do not ensure effectiveness but rather create the necessary conditions for effectiveness. The real test is in how they are actually used.
    + Working relationships and boardroom behaviours that enable effective governance include well recognised issues such as the importance of the relationship between the governing body chair and the head of the organisation, but many other aspects of what happens inside the boardroom are also important in determining effectiveness. There are potential sensitivities here, but when things ‘go wrong’ in governance they often do so because of the people and the associated behaviours.
    + Assessing the outcomes of a governing body provides clear evidence of effective governance or otherwise and helps determine the extent to which a governing body ‘adds value’. The real value of governing bodies lies in what they achieve in terms of outcomes; some are relatively generic and uncontentious, such as the need for financial sustainability. Other outcomes specific to each provider’s context can be added. They might include for example the successful implementation of a major capital project or an overseas campus, or the integrated thinking about all the drivers of value which contribute to successful strategic delivery.

    Defining and measuring the ‘added value’ of a governing body is a challenge and identifying causality is difficult. However, for the many higher education providers with well-established and embedded governance processes, considering what governing bodies do and how they do it, is more relevant than simply looking in detail at whether the enablers of effective governance are in place.

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