Can you pinpoint your boss?

March 7, 2003

Is your institution threatened by outdated governance? Five questions will help you find out, says Steven Schwartz.

Let's face it, "university governance" is just a euphemism for "who's in charge?" In most organisations, this is not a difficult question to answer.

But in universities, which take pride in their democratic traditions, the boss is sometimes hard to find.

The word "universitas" originally referred to self-governing guilds of masters and students. The tradition of institutions where academic staff and students have a big say in overall management still influences governance. But universities now have thousands of employees, budgets in the hundreds of millions, huge estates, overseas ventures, hospitals and spin-off companies. How these resources are managed is not simply a matter for staff but also for students, alumni, the business community and the government. Accountability is essential, and the self-absorbed university is an anachronism. Today's higher education institution operates in a competitive arena that is becoming more and more like a market economy.

Their survival depends on their operating in an open, accountable, business-like way.

Is your university ready? Do you have the necessary governance in place? Here are five questions to help you find out:

Is your council dominated by internal members?

Governing councils exist to provide independent oversight for universities.

If they are dominated by insiders, there is potential for conflict of interest.

Prestigious universities in the US often have small boards of non-university directors. The Harvard Corporation has eight members with only one, the president, an insider. Most UK universities have large councils representing the wide range of stakeholders. Universities benefit from the expertise brought in by business people, government officials and other outsiders. Councils with a majority of interested, well-informed outside members are the best way to ensure that universities meet community needs.

•  Are your managers elected?

Academics are not going to vote for a manager who advocates cutting their programmes. The result is that only those people with no plans or those who promise everyone whatever they wish to hear are elected.

University managers, including deans and department heads, should not be elected but should be selected for their management ability. This will give them more dignity and authority. Also, managers who are hired can be fired - a key element of accountability.

•  Are your delegations implicit?

Some universities never get around to writing down who is responsible for what and who reports to whom. Managers need an explicit set of delegations, responsibilities and accountabilities along with written targets and performance goals.

Do all your decisions require a vote?

Universities may be bastions of democracy, but it does not follow that every decision requires a vote. If it taught us nothing else, the failure of utopian socialism made clear that a community's goals cannot be achieved by giving everyone equal authority. Managers must have the power to make decisions and then be held accountable for the results.

Do you have management committees?

In most universities, collegial input comes in the form of committees.

Academic senates, faculty and department boards, promotions and research committees are the mechanisms by which academics' expertise is translated into curricula and research programmes thus informing the core activities of the institution.

Committees serve as advisory bodies and forums for debate. But managers should not be permitted to hide behind committees to duck responsibilities.

At the end of the day, committees cannot be held accountable, only managers.

If you answered yes to any of these questions, your governance needs some work. If you answered no to all of them, congratulations and welcome to the 21st century.

Steven Schwartz is vice-chancellor of Brunel University.

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