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Getting the most from an Academic Board – Q&A with Professor Fred D’Agostino, President of the Academic board, University of Queensland

Universities are currently in transition and operating in a complex and changing environment. As such, there is an increased scrutiny on good governance practices, the size, composition, and roles of the governing bodies, and more importantly; the interaction between them.

In the lead up to the 10th Annual University Governance and Regulations Forum, we caught up with Professor Fred D’Agostino, President of the Academic board at the University of Queensland – Professor D’Agostino shares his views on the key elements for good governance, the responsibilities of governing bodies and the role of the Academic board as a custodian for academic quality.

Professor D’Agostino will be addressing the topic ‘Getting the most out of the Academic Board’ at the conference on the 15-16 September, at Hotel Realm Canberra.

  1. Whilst there might not be a specific model for good governance, the framework relies on the roles of the Council, the Senior Executive and the Academic Boardin terms of their specific roles, where do each of these bodies currently stand given they have significantly evolved over time?’

Good university governance depends on three key elements — the Council (or Senate, as we call it at UQ), the Senior Executive, and the Academic Board. Each has its role.

The Senior Executive sets a direction for the university, especially through its development of a strategic plan and a budget to support it, along with the policies and practices which support recruitment and development of academic staff.

The Council oversees the implementation of this plan (and approves the budget), focusing especially on performance against agreed goals, and on risk management.

The Academic Board is the guardian of academic standards and integrity and can be recruited by the Senior Executive to enlist critical commentary on and then support for its strategic activities. The Academic Board has two key functions: To serve as a forum for the critical assessment and improvement of policies and practices that implement strategic objectives AND to provide a situation in which key members of academic staff can be informed about and recruited to these strategic objectives. It also reassures Council about matters of standards and integrity.

In this model, a lot depends on confidence. The Senior Executive needs the confidence of members of the Board (and indeed of the larger academic and professional staff communities). The Academic Board needs the confidence of the Senior Executive … trust in its capacity to “stress test” proposed plans and to serve as a forum for recruitment to common goals. The Board also needs the confidence of the Council, so that the governing body can rely on its assurances about academic quality and risk management. These relations of trust are best developed by exposure of key personnel to one another. The Board President or Chair needs to be a member of a senior management group and of the Council in order for the members of these groups to develop confidence in the President’s command of their portfolio.

  1. Does there need to be a clear separation of responsibilities of Councils, clearly separated from those of Senior management, and Academic Boards? Alternatively, can these responsibilities be considered shared?

My experience suggests that it is best for Council NOT to get involved in broadly operational matters, whether it be budget, infrastructure, academic programs, management policy, and the like. Council has oversight for performance against strategic goals that have been developed by the Senior Executive but signed off on by the Council itself. It has special responsibility for interjecting long-term and wide-scope perspectives into the thinking of a Senior Executive that can, understandably, become preoccupied with more urgent short-term matters. Whereas Boards have previously exercised some of the functions now held by the Senior Executive — such as the development of a university budget (still the cases as recently as the 1990s) — the growth in size and in complexity and, especially, in compliance reporting has made this a more difficult position to argue for and it has in any event been abandoned everywhere. The Board’s key function — and one the Senior Executive cannot perform — is to ensure academic standards and integrity are continually refined and monitored and to provide a sounding board for the Senior Executive that adds value to strategic deliberations.

  1. How significant is the role of the Board as custodian of academic quality?

Because or insofar as it is representative of the diversity of academic roles, levels, disciplines, and the like, the Board is ideally positioned to act as a guardian of quality and integrity. Its members remain in touch with “chalk-face” activities, whereas members of the Senior Executive unavoidably view the activities of the university in a “mediated” way — through the media of aggregative data, for instance. The authenticity of the experiences of members of the Board ensures that discussions of academic standards and integrity are informed by practical experience.

  1. A key issue fundamental to effective governance is transparency in the accessibility of information to any individual or group involved in the decision-making process – how can this process be strengthened?

Transparency of information goes back to the issue of confidence. Each party to the three-way governance arrangement builds trust by showing the other parties what it is doing and explaining why. This is a virtuous cycle. The Board opens its processes to the Council, and the Council develops confidence in the Board and hence opens its processes in turn. Transparency builds confidence and confidence is the lubricant of policy development and implementation.

See Professor D’Agostino discuss these topics and more at the 10th Annual University Governance, 15-16 September, at the Hotel Realm Canberra.

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