Valuing diversity starts with governing boards

For Victoria Holbrook, governing boards embracing diversity could be the key that helps universities thrive in an uncertain future.

There is much about my pandemic experience I’ll be more than happy to leave behind.

But the opportunity to live and work differently – with different people, at a different pace and solving complex problems (both at home and work) in new ways – has been a gift.

It’s been revitalising, if exhausting. Rewarding, if seriously challenging. What a time to show just what higher education can do: its values; its people; its impact.

Now, as we begin to talk about a “new normal” in higher education, with the short-term crisis response moving into a planning phase, I realise I don’t want to go back to the way things were, even if that was a realistic option.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with new people, bringing diverse perspectives and lived experiences as well as seemingly endless talent and enthusiasm together to create solutions.

A governance and stakeholder engagement gulf

“Diversity is THE thing” said Monica Chadha, Vice Chair of Council at Queen Mary, University of London at a recent HEPI/Advance HE House of Commons breakfast seminar on the topic “who governs the governors?”

Charlotte Valeur, Chair of the Institute of Directors, advocates for boards to “own [diversity] in your head and heart”, actively seeking out people who don’t fit in to be part of the conversation.

Our recent members report on governance challenges highlights that despite recognition of the importance of the issue, board diversity is not yet where it could or should be, leading to a risk of groupthink.

But we’ve known all of this for some time. Yes, efforts are undoubtedly being made. And yes, I am a white, middle-class, educated woman and with that comes a bias in my perspective whether I like it or not. Yet I would like to ask, could we look at board diversity another way? In doing so, might we set ourselves on a surer path to success at such a critical time?

If we say that the core function of governance is to create value and impact for stakeholders, leading to confidence and trust in institutions, then several things follow:

  • We need to know who our stakeholders are and understand them
  • They need to influence our business
  • We need to help them to be our advocates

A good starting point for us in governance is therefore to recognise the distance between the stakeholders we seek to influence and the makeup of our own governing bodies. This is absolutely within our control. You could ask “do we really understand who our stakeholders are?”; “how does our governing body reflect our current (and intended) student and staff mix, local community and wider society?”; and “do we have the range of skills to test our thinking in the round?”

This is not a numbers game. This is about ensuring a range of lived experiences, as well as protected characteristics, have their voice and, crucially, influence. It leads to diversity of thought and it shows we live our values to all our stakeholders by demonstrating inclusive leadership. But perhaps even more significant than that, it means we have a greater chance of developing successful strategies and building good engagement with the full range of stakeholders that creates the conditions for that success. People bring networks, access and insight. We are going to need those more than ever to know where to go next.

Effective strategies for change

Many universities’ current long term strategies have gone out the window in our “new normal” future. Boards will undoubtedly need to test priorities and emerging new strategic thinking; they will want to have assurance that a new strategy is deliverable, reflects the character and mission of the university and continues to give stakeholders confidence. There will be difficult decisions to make about the nature, size and shape of any provider; decisions that impact on students, staff, and the wider community.

Can universities take this opportunity to bridge the gulf between governance and engagement and develop strong strategies? Perhaps now is the time to:

  • Strengthen the range of contributors to governance by actively reviewing membership, co-opting or making time-limited appointments, for example, to committees or task and finish groups, which in turn strengthen engagement with stakeholder groups
  • Bring in diverse student perspectives by drawing on the recently finished cohorts of graduates and elected student officers who will have been the recipients, observers and partners of profuse educational change
  • Alleviate potential barriers to participation in governance by considering remuneration of chairs, covering childcare costs or clarifying the expenses/reimbursements available
  • Ensure impact assessments of Covid-19 changes on different and intersecting student and staff groups are undertaken, and the analysis is used to inform strategic thinking and decision-making, by identifying and addressing blind spots
  • Ask what members of the board of governors need now to fulfil their roles well and think differently, for example, revised induction or mentoring, focused agendas and briefings, methods for informal connectivity.

None of these things in isolation is sufficient to address the strategic challenge a lack of diversity in governance creates, but together they can begin to create new spaces, voices, insight and evidence to put us on the strongest footing possible.

It requires that the key governance power holders – chairs, executives and secretaries – each play their part to the full by grasping the opportunity this time brings to create a new normal – creating lasting change using strategy as a necessary and neutral “third space”.

If we join the dots between governance, stakeholder engagement and producing successful strategies, we might view things in a new light: valuing diversity helps us live our values, and our institutions to thrive in an uncertain future.

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