V-c-governor relationships make the stage

Judith Ackroyd and Jill Robinson explain why they are dramatising material from confidential interviews with university leaders

March 5, 2015

Source: James Fryer

Fictionalised accounts permit a more honest examination of the issues at stake. We hope that post-performance discussions will generate further analysis

Six years ago, responding to the sudden departure of two vice-chancellors from their posts, David Palfreyman, director of the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies, said he was “astonished” by these cases.

Would anybody be astonished today? These days, Times Higher Education seems to report news of departing vice-chancellors with remarkable frequency. Announcements are usually accompanied by a generic statement from the university about retirement choices, pursuing other opportunities or “mutual agreements”. Some vice-chancellors fade from view, while others, such as Malcolm Gillies, the former head of London Metropolitan University and City University London, resurface. Only occasionally is there a glimpse of what really took place behind the scenes.

2009 was the year in which Martin Everett left the University of East London after a seven-month suspension and Simon Lee left Leeds Metropolitan University following an ultimatum by Ninian Watt, the chair of governors, to resign or face suspension for bullying allegations. At the time, suspicion of governing boards was rife, with the University and College Union at UEL telling THE that “governors are answerable to no one. They have used secretive and authoritarian methods to drive out a respected manager. We still do not know why Professor Everett was pursued in this way”.

But the reaction to such departures has changed. Over the past 12 months, a considerable number of pages in this magazine have been devoted to discussion and speculation about the possible cause of this major shift in the security of vice-chancellors’ roles. Suggestions have ranged from the desire of vice-chancellors to maximise their pensions, to the heavy responsibilities that come with higher salaries, to the increasing marketisation of higher education and more corporate approaches at board or council level. While journalists have searched minutes and pressed contacts, the sector is usually left in the dark because of “gagging clauses” and some collegial silences.

This got us thinking. While silence is arguably the right approach in such cases, it does pose a problem. When relationships break down, how can the sector and its senior leaders learn from such experiences if there are no details in the public domain? So we came up with an idea that would allow chairs and vice-chancellors to explore their relationships more openly: conducting confidential interviews as part of a research study and presenting the findings in the form of a fictionalised and fully anonymised performance in order to safeguard confidentiality.

Our project, “Enhancing relationships between executives and governors: an exploration through performance”, is funded by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and aims to get under the skin of the new landscape of leadership and governance in higher education.

Between May and November of last year, confidential, in-depth narrative interviews were undertaken with 16 existing or former vice-chancellors and chairs who responded to an invitation to participate. They represented a wide range of institutions across the UK and the sample was split equally between the two roles. The interviews were conversational in style but guided by a schedule of questions generated by common concerns expressed in the published literature and through discussion with our steering group.

The benefit of our approach is that all information can be anonymised, ensuring a safe environment for post-performance discussion. During the interviews, participants felt free to give very personal, first-hand accounts, knowing that the project would not reveal institutions, identities, nor the exact incidents described. As a result, we have obtained rich accounts of the relationship between chairs and vicechancellors in both good and difficult times.

Some of our findings marry up with public commentary. The research brought out, for example, the often-discussed tensions between executive and non-executive roles, the tightrope to be walked between corporate and collegiate values in the modern university, and market pressures on vice-chancellors and their governing bodies. But our findings suggest that there is also something more complex around the dynamics of vice-chancellor-chair relationships (and sometimes the registrar or clerk) that shape and reshape in different contexts in the life of both the university and the incumbents, with phases of unaligned expectations and values. The departure of chairs has been rare. Indeed, it has been suggested that it is harder to deal with a failing chair than a failing vice-chancellor, although perhaps the climate is changing. While we conclude that the sector appears to be in good hands, and that major problems are the exception, this research may enable difficulties to be picked up earlier and problems prevented.

Fictionalised accounts permit a more honest examination of the issues at stake. Clearly, no close discussion about real examples is possible, and indeed, rarely are such details accessible. But through fictionalised performance, vulnerabilities and egos may be set aside, as those responding to the performance are interrogating a fictionalised version of reality. We therefore hope that post-performance discussions will generate further analysis – and that the project as a whole will lead to a better understanding of the structures and behaviours that can help or hinder these complex but vital relationships.


A Leadership Foundation for Higher Education event in London on 21 May 2015 includes the option to see the performance arising from the project. A second performance, with an introduction by Sir Eric Thomas, will be held at Regent’s University London on 3 June at 6pm. Reserve a seat via vcgovproject@regents.ac.uk.

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