Universities need to be at the 'forefront' on diversity or risk making poor management decisions and missing out on emerging talent, a vice-chancellor has said.
Rama Thirunamachandran, head of Canterbury Christ Church University, said that institutions need to stop filling senior positions and governing bodies using existing networks, which may not reach into all parts of society.
Universities should be “more open” and seek out people who may not initially seem “obvious choices” for such positions, he said.
Canterbury Christ Church has boosted the number of female governors on its 18-strong board from three to eight since Professor Thirunamachandran took over less than two years ago.
He warned that without diverse governing bodies, universities risked making decisions that did not “bring the best out of the institution” and failed to release “latent talent” by not supporting individuals to come through the system.
“If universities are not in the forefront of making a commitment to being a positive and diverse organisation then you cannot expect many other organisations to do that because we are supposed to be learning organisations,” Professor Thirunamachandran told Times Higher Education.
“It is important that the board, which ultimately governs the university, is able to represent and understand its student and staff body,” he added.
The university has 20,000 students and 1,700 staff from “every possible diverse background you can imagine”, he added, with around 65 per cent of the students being female.
Having a diverse governing body was not about “political correctness” but instead “ensuring that a diverse range of perspectives are brought to bear on decision-making at the highest levels of the organisation”, he said.
Canterbury Christ Church has managed to boost its board’s gender diversity by “casting the net wide” in the hunt for suitably qualified candidates when vacancies arose. The university has partnerships with many organisations in the health, education, law and policing fields and approached those communities to share details of opportunities, he said.
“What we did was to take a proactive approach to seek out women who would put their hat in the ring, rather than leave it to chance and networks, which don’t work very well for all parts of society,” he added.
He explained that existing networks can be “narrow” and lead people to work with only certain sections of the community that have similar backgrounds, experiences and interests. Universities should create broader networks and make sure that opportunities widely advertised, he said.
“Institutions need to be much more open in their culture, attitude and thought patterns. They need to be much more willing to seek out people who at first pass might not seem as obvious choices for university senior roles,” he said.
But he stopped short of advocating the use of quotas or women-only shortlists. “I don’t think tokenism, appointing people just because they represent a part of society, is ever a good thing…Once you move away from the merit criterion you get into all kinds of difficulty,” he added.
Next time vacancies on the governing body arise the university would likely use the help of headhunters and look at other areas of diversity such as ethnicity, Professor Thirunamachandran said. Just two members of the current board are from ethnic minority groups, so the university “could do better” on this score, he added.