HEI Governance relies heavily on navigating compliance and audit elements, along with independent, strategic oversight. Adhering to the Nolan Principles, our aim is to support executive decision-making, without venturing into operational aspects. We’re guided by codes of practice encompassing challenge, financial scrutiny, plus grounding our decisions to act in the best interests of the Institution, Stakeholders, and wider community.
The complexities of both internal and external ecosystems in HEIs, might be absent in other private/public sector business models, i.e. a sector challenged by a fast-moving policy/regulatory landscape, peppered with some scepticism towards the role HE has in society. Therefore, a Board’s ability in adapting to urgent, and long-term decision-making, requires open-minded opinions.
An intricate dance of balance or monoculture of homogeneous voices
While each lay member adds their unique value, remaining razor-sharp when faced with quantitative and qualitative measures, board culture becomes an intricate dance of rhythm, for resilience and expansion, merged with meaningful engagement. Working together to seek out blind spots, without biases, can be an arduous journey. Bypassing governance oversight can have devastating effects, as seen in the repercussions of dysfunctional board dynamics continuing to surface in organisations across different sectors. Board culture might collapse under a mixture of decision paralysis, ego dominance, tokenism, and ignoring ineffective leadership. Power imbalance, inequality, a lack of curiosity, or simply a monoculture of homogeneity can perniciously derail an institution, potentially losing a number of underrepresented voices, who may have found it difficult to speak out in the first place.
Boardrooms can be fragile places. As people-based constructs with differing opinions, sometimes entrenched views, personal likes, dislikes, and varied character traits – daunting even for the hardiest of personality with high emotional intelligence. The Chair has a crucial role to play in bringing everyone together in a way that guarantees the Board’s collective wisdom, experience, and capability are available to the management team - in turn, their own role underestimated, or unacknowledged. Since the relationship between Board and SMT is critical, ensuring a culture where everyone is working together in a constructive, productive way, requires mutual understanding, compassion, and trust. Ideally, egos, or personal criticisms, remain at the site entrance before meetings begin.
Dynamics flow in rooms filled with good intentions from high-achieving volunteers, when there’s healthy dialogue and discussion, bursting with curiosity and ambitious shared goals. Healthy conflict should act as a catalyst for transformational change, not a battle of wills. Although, giving permission to oneself to be vulnerable and fully present, with a team one might see in person or hybrid, four to six times a year, requires humility, commitment, and psychological safety. If members feel undervalued or unheard, or there’s a danger of groupthink, instead of consensus, moving the needle from compliance to improvement would be difficult to achieve.
Board responses influence culture, and solid expertise is vital for a focused, agile ecology, especially in smaller academic organisations, as seen in the HEPI report on specialist institutions. A report from London Higher’s Access HE division, revealed that in London, by 2030, students of Global Majority ethnic backgrounds will constitute almost three-quarters (74%) of those entering higher education in the capital; over half of students from London will be the first in their family to go to university; and three-quarters of learners from free-school-meals backgrounds. An understanding of the student experience through lived experience/social mobility is a welcomed asset.
Therefore, well-selected Boards, with healthy dynamic contrast, allow for informed debate around a shared table understanding the best of pedagogy, power, and partnerships.
Diversity of voice and cultural intelligence
Reaching the best possible diversity of thought is fundamental, a responsibility the Chair can push to ensure for different views and perspectives in order to interrogate topics in a way that makes decision-making, and accountability, as robust as it can be. This calls for levels of cultural intelligence.
To realise this, the Board might consider a culture that fully supports individuals who are prepared to share what they are thinking. There is still a need to question, in order to get to a consensus, even if the whole board is excited by something new. After all, it’s handy to have someone who can water down the treacle, when things get a little sweet, or a member whose gut instinct is to lean into the scrutiny of questioning, or answering the ‘whys'.
With key economic and social opportunities, plus risks facing all regions, ensuring campuses and leadership teams are more diverse, and exciting places, requires a need to move away from stereotypes and merit wider viewpoints. Every member should not only have a seat at the table, but a diversity of voice in their seats. Investigating a lack of sensitivity for protected characteristics, such as race, gender, neurodiversity, and age, and calling out dubious behaviours, if presented in any form (extending to committees’ WhatsApp groups or social media conduct), helps create a vibrant, visionary Board.
A suggestion from a 2020 Henley Business Report on Universities governance (13-10-2020), recommended Sector regulators, such as those seen tackling improvements to the NHS, could monitor appropriate dynamics and identify problem institutions before they face irretrievable failure, helping them fix their governance and management in good time.
There might also be other ways of ensuring healthy dynamics:
- Embracing inclusivity with a broader range of expertise and experiences by removing elitism
- Encouraging active participation from all Board via active listening and constructive dialogue, in 1-2-1 and smaller committees
- Long-sighted succession planning that allows for a wider mix of demographics
- Investing in relation-building and communications outside of the Boardroom for members to feel the pulse of staff and students
- A dual assurance/link model, where independent members have genuine engagement and insight into the reality of university performance and culture.
Overall, incorporating safe spaces for dynamic voices, allows transformational change to take place, giving rise to a genuinely enriching experience. Creativity and innovation naturally ensue by allowing for significant discussions, ensuring a more holistic, transparent environment reflective of stakeholders and communities. Outlier sectors joining HE Boards, such as Arts, Health, or Retail, will bring their own values to the table, especially in due-diligence, and fast-moving innovation matters.
Coming from a Film/TV background, and chairing a Performing Arts Board, I joined Norwich University of the Arts’ Council, just before the pandemic. Invited on a pre-induction walkabout by previous VC, Professor John Last, OBE, initiated the chance to meet students and staff. Hearing the heartbeat of the University and appreciating John’s genuine enthusiasm and joy for the creative arts which permeated across all areas of the busy campuses, there was no doubt how to add value to an already dynamic, highly - motivated board. The journey has been immensely rewarding since then, and I’m deeply appreciative to John for the opportunity.
Whilst the learning curve is steep in HE governance, forums where members can discuss their stories, as well as safely tackle pressing issues of Boardroom dynamics, can help play a powerful role. Advance HE’s Governance Conference in November 2023. will be a fantastic opportunity for open dialogue, collaboration, and progress. I’m hugely looking forward to joining the conversation.
Ri Chakraborty FRSA, is a TV/Film Executive Producer and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. As Council Member of Norwich University of the Arts, she’s Deputy Chair on both Nominations Committee and People Committee.
Ri is also Chair of the Aakash Odedra Dance Company (An Arts Council England, National Portfolio Organisation).
Join us at our Governance Conference 2023: Governance Culture: Navigating policy, politics and people’, 23 November 2023, De Vere Grand Connaught Rooms in London.
This year, Advance HE is celebrating 20 years leading and supporting effective governance in HE. Culture is the key factor that underpins effectiveness no matter what the operating context throws at higher education providers. With that in mind, the 2023 conference will look at board culture through the lens of navigating policy, politics and people. We will reflect on what the past 20 years has sharpened our focus on, as well as look ahead to the prospect of further governmental and regulatory change in order to stimulate thinking on how healthy board culture can thrive to benefit all.