Should former VCs be on governing bodies?

Former vice-chancellors, principals or alternatively titled Heads of Institution (HoI) feature as external or lay members on an increasing share of UK university governing bodies.

I term this new crop of appointees ‘indigenous independents’, inhabiting an insider-outsider status. Such appointments are unsurprising membership manoeuvres by nominations committees given the array of accountabilities of governing bodies, and the strategic and tactical nous needed to navigate a path for their HEI through an ever competitive, complex environment.

An erstwhile VC’s leadership experiences, when carefully channelled into contributions at the governing body potentially mediates, calibrates and (on occasions) ‘reality-checks’ those of external members from non-HE backgrounds. Previously being at the helm of another university, ex-VCs coming onto another governing body have the capacity to hit the ground running and avoiding what Peter McCaffery’s recent article refers to as an undesirable ‘learn-as-you-go partnership’ between the university and governors.

The ‘lay’ of the land

A fairly extensive, but not exhaustive, scan of HEI secretariat webpages provides a roll call of prior HoIs featured on UK university governing bodies. This includes the following (all with professorial title): John Brooks (Open), Patricia Broadfoot at RAU, John Craven (UWE), Julian Crampton (Gloucestershire), Sir Graeme Davies (Lincoln), Sir Ian Diamond (Aberystwyth), Ruth Farwell (Solent), Peter Fidler (Southbank), Dame Janet Finch (Leicester), Dame Julia Goodfellow (Hertfordshire), Michael Gunn (Bedfordshire and USW), Sir Martin Harris (SOAS, a second time around after a significant gap), Graham Henderson (Birmingham City and York St John), Chris Jenks (City), Dame Shirley Pearce (chairing at LSE), Susan Price (chairing at Salford), Sir Eric Thomas (UAL), Graham Upton (Bangor), Sir David Wallace (St Andrews) and Sir Tim Wilson at Arden. Multiple former (and some current) university senior leaders from the marzipan layer of DVC, PVC, Dean also populate the governing bodies of many UK universities.

However, common, identifiable characteristics are:

  • the majority of appointees are the inaugural sometime HoI on the governing body, in their first three or four-year term. An exception to this is Gloucestershire, now onto its second former HoI Council Chair.
  • ‘clear water’ between the role-holders’ most recent HoI role and their new board appointment, reflecting the balancing between time elapsing after the former day job, with maintaining live leadership experiences. Most had retired from being a HoI no more, and in many cases less than, five years before taking up their board appointment.

A mixed picture emerges of ex-HoI affiliations with the destination institution, from deep and established links, through to more perfunctory and pragmatic factors such as the HEI’s proximity to where their post-retirement residential base, or no evident associations. There are no trends of ‘sticking to their own’ in terms of similarities between the university led by an ex-HoI and the to-be-governed institution, with as many examples of former VCs moving across the traditional and newer parts of the sector when taking on an external member role, as there is mission group matching.

HE legislation and policy

HE-related legislation and policy from the 1980s into the 2000s has attended to the size and shape of university governing bodies as sites of political interest, and nodes in a nexus of state-institutional accountability. Key recommendations of the Jarratt Report (1985) from the steering committee for ‘efficiency studies’ (a phrase echoed in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017)) implies an upping of the ‘corporate’ quotient of lay members of the then university councils, and the desired industry and commercial expertise as a corollary of recommendations to transfer strategic and financial activity and authority from senates to councils.

The Report recommendations do not sit comfortably with the inclusion of an erstwhile VC on the governing body in the form of of a primus inter pares figure to use Mary Henkel’s (2002:31) analogy, when Jarratt advocated the re-casting of VCs as akin to chief executives, when written. Ironically, for the more ‘corporate’ post-1992 HEC boards, this is not a new idea and goes back to Schedule 7a 3(3) of the Further and Higher Education Act 1992 where the new boards were required (as they still are) to have at least one and up to nine ‘co-opted’ members with ‘experience in the provision of education’. Only recently some post-1992 HECs are in practice allocating at least one place in this category for ex-HoIs, or those drawn from the senior management tier below this. Pre-1992 providers are also not subject to this specific prescription in statutes or ordinances also seeking the benefits of a clued-up external member seeking assurance around academic governance or the safeguarding and advancement of the student experience.

Governance and management cultures

The informal discussions leading to ex-HoIs securing a place on a university governing body are culturally important, alongside formal procedure. The ‘say’ incumbent HoIs have in a former HoI from elsewhere entering the governing body, is itself an indicator of the health and maturity of the governance and management culture. A current HoI with limited or no input to (and being aggrieved or perturbed by) the appointment would be symptomatic of strained relationships between parties.

The presence of a prior HoI on an HEI’s governing body arguably reflects an open outlook and governance system co-habited by members and senior management. For the latter group, constructively engaging with advice given by the appointee can signal confidence, responsiveness and resilience. The risk of the indigenous independent ‘going native’ and trespassing onto management territory, is arguably no greater for the HoI member from a former life than for any other external member. Having likely been on the receiving end of encroachment by externals into executive matters at some stage in their VC careers, coupled with their own experience of wearing both accountable officer and trustee hats, may make the indigenous independent more sensitive to avoiding these scenarios in their own interactions with the incumbent HoI and senior team.

Discernable shifts

Whilst I have majored on the advantages of appointing a former HoI to a university governing body, anxieties over their presence may remain for some around risks of breaching already fuzzy lines between governance and management, conflicts of interest or the locking of horns between the ex-VC and current leader. This (co)option will thus not be desirable for all HEIs. Alternative appointments may bring different, and equally important HE breadth or specialism to the board table, including holders of former senior professional services positions such as registrars, secretaries or COOs, current examples of which include Maxine Penlington chairing at Wrexham Glyndwr, Sally Neocosmos at Bradford or Jonathan Nicholls at Sheffield.

Some governing bodies may opt for senior representatives from sector bodies or policy think tanks such as Aaron Porter of Advance HE as an external Council member at Goldsmiths, Mick Laverty (formerly of SLC) at Birmingham and HEPI’s Nick Hillman on Manchester’s Board. Other bodies may be content with the capacity and contribution of staff and student members on the governing body to satisfy this, with some opting for a place for the principal of the main regional FE provider or university sponsored school or academy to represent such strategic educational partnerships.

No one approach suits all providers’ most senior body but a discernible shift in increasing external expertise in education on university governing bodies is occurring, to challenge what may now be historical and narrow neo-liberal compacts between universities and the economy.

4 responses to “Should former VCs be on governing bodies?

  1. Adam, I think this is interesting, but I was sorry that you didn’t answer the question: ‘should’ former HoIs be on governing bodies? It seems that some Boards engage them; others go for senior sector figures; others do neither. Do you think there are moral or quasi-moral arguments for or against? Does it make any difference? – is there any evidence of improved or, heaven forbid, sub-optimal governance behaviour in consequence? Maybe it’s too early to tell.

  2. Thanks Jon. The shorthand of the article’s title and the question it posed perhaps promised too much. The purpose of the piece within the word count was really to set the scene and the general characteristics of this increasing feature on providers’ councils and boards, which I stumbled across as a side line in doing some wider research. I think it probably is too early to assess what impact former VCs/Principals are having on governance effectiveness, and what some of the ethical and constitutional issues arising from this. A decent qualitative delve into governing body members’ and attendees’ views of the impact of their role in enabling effectiveness and the unintended or intended impact on wider governing body dynamics (not just in relation to their interactions with the incumbent head of institution and external/lay members, but also with staff and student council/board members) would be an interesting research piece to pick up at some stage. My EdD research a few years explored how governing bodies being visible engendered wider legitimacy of both institutional corporate governance and senior leadership amongst university staff and students, so adding the influence of former VCs added into the membership mix of the governing body would further enrich this debate…

  3. Hah! I think there could be a really interesting research topic in there, especially if the former VC was relatively high profile or well known or successful – the issue of Board dynamics could be writ pretty large, I suspect. There’s quite a tricky question about how you get enough HE knowledge and experience onto the Board without either raising potential conflicts of interest, or undermining existing members of the Executive; and I doubt anyone has really got it spot-on at the moment, although each institution will be different in their needs, as you say. But I think this may be a research project that I leave to you, for now! Thanks for the thoughtful response…

  4. Adam: Is it worth noting that the CUC’s 2014 HE Governance Code explicitly recognises the potential value of appointing external members with direct senior experience of HE?

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