GLOBAL: Balancing the governance-management seesaw

Tension, trust, power - those are some of the words associated with the relationship between a university's chief executive and the chair of its governing body. Whether the two are known as vice-chancellor and chancellor, president and board chair, the issues are likely to be much the same around the world. The vice-chancellor or president is charged with running the institution while the chair or chancellor leads the group that looks over his or her shoulder, providing governance and advice, and voting on key decisions.

The high-stakes nature of those decisions and the often-blurred line between governance and management mean the relationship between a vice-chancellor and his or her council and council chair is absolutely critical. When it goes wrong, things can get very messy. Council might overturn managerial decisions, performance reviews become tense affairs, and the whole situation can spill into the public arena, worrying staff and damaging the institution's public reputation.

Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada chair, Tom Traves, says he is not sure there is any way a university can ensure the governance-management relationship works well: "Ultimately, it requires trust," Traves says.

"The university president is the linchpin in this trusting relationship insofar as she or he requires the confidence of the faculty, staff and students of the university to exercise presidential powers that are often based on a kind of moral authority, and, at the same time, the president requires the trust of the university's board, that she or he is carrying out essential duties in an effective manner."

If that trust is in place, the relationship between management and governance normally unfolds in a positive manner, even in the face of occasional disputes or disappointments, Traves says. But a breakdown in trust can make management or governance difficult.

Other interviewees for this article also cited trust as a central element for a successful relationship between a chief executive and council chair. Said one university chancellor: "There has got to be a mutual policy of no surprises. So the vice-chancellor shouldn't be doing things... the chancellor and the council are not broadly aware of. That's very important."

Interestingly, a degree of mentoring may come into the relationship. When Australian expert Meredith Edwards reviewed New Zealand's system of tertiary education governance earlier this decade, she found that nurturing and care were among the top attributes chief executives wanted in their council chairs. Other attributes regarded as important included commonsense and an ability to get on with the job and see past personality clashes.

Wilf Malcolm worked with four chancellors during his 10-year tenure as vice-chancellor of the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Malcolm said it should be possible for vice-chancellor and chancellor to do their jobs even if they did not get along.

He argues that the more managerial style of leadership applied to universities around the world in the past decade or two has increased stress on the governance-management nexus. University staff report first and foremost to their vice-chancellor and governing bodies can find themselves excluded from large parts of university business as a result.

"That opens up a very big gap... it's tended to increase the sense in which there are things in management that are quite separate from governance," Malcolm said.

A related issue is the make-up of the council. Members of council who represent interest groups such as staff and students may be familiar with the workings of universities, but other appointees may not be.

Dr Amanda Goodall, Leverhulme Fellow at Warwick Business School and Visiting Fellow to the Socioeconomic Institute of Zurich University, observed that governance was raised frequently during research for her forthcoming book on university leadership*.

She said a number of vice-chancellors commented that lay members of the board often knew very little about universities, and this could be a problem while in the public sector there is a tendency for board members to be picked because they represent different local constituencies instead of for particular competencies in governance.

"Many US presidents felt that private US universities were better at selecting board members," she said.

* Socrates in the Boardroom: Why research universities should be led by top scholars, published by Princeton University Press, forthcoming.