A day in the life of a University Governor

If you think that sitting on a University Board is all about power and glamor, you are deeply mistaken. Board meetings have tendencies to become  protracted and challenging exercises in frustration management. The term “Nuit Blanche” must have been coined for the nights that follow. But I may have found a way to deal with it.

Welcome to the world of a “University Governor”; a most thankless job. You get a sleepless night if you keep quiet and you rubber-stamp everything that has been put before you for approval, and you get a sleepless night if you pushed back more than you should have. A guaranteed no win situation. You’re damned if you over-engage and you’re damned if you snooze through it.

It has nothing to do with whether the administration is committed and is working hard for the well-being of the university. But any given Administration has its own set of values, skills, convictions, methods, priorities and experiences. They just don’t always rhyme with your own.

In principle, the role of the Board is to provide independent oversight on the Administration’s decision-making processes. In practice, you just sit there hoping that they are “doing the right thing”, i.e., that they are doing what you would have done if you were in their shoes. The problem is that sometimes it is not so and it can become difficult to reconcile with your own … savoir-faire.

Thirty-four years of experience and knowledge of the University do not make a life on a Board any easier. You say to yourself, this is more years than all what the entire central administration has had together at this institution. Feelings like,  “why does this barely arrived administrator think that he knows better,” are not so easy to suppress.

But don’t think that things are only hard and frustrating for the faculty, students and staff on the Board just because they are much more immersed in the university’s daily life. Appointed members can be as passionate in their engagement and commitment to the university.  I surely like that when I see it.

The board has recently dealt with an issue, where it was obvious that one of the appointed members is heads and shoulders above any one else around the Board table in terms of expertise and qualification to lead us into a decision. He was passionate, articulate and convincing while expressing his views on the matter. But this decision happens to be for the Executive to make. I can hardly wait to see how wiser, and more seasoned people will deal with the outcome, especially if it goes contrary to their views.

I had written before about how in practice, the business of a Board’s oversight on an Administration is not as obvious as it sounds, especially when essentially all the information that forms the basis of Board decisions is provided by the Administration. But things get really complicated, when you are exposed to a different set of information from other sources, or when you realize that you have been provided with an incomplete or sanitized picture. Another “urge” to manage.

Serious and diligent Governors are always walking a very tight rope trying to support the Administration without conceding a “carte blanche”, keeping faith in its competence without relinquishing oversight, suggesting ideas without micromanaging, questioning it without doubting it. There are of course other less demanding options.

The picture will not be fair however, if I don’t mention that, to my immense satisfaction we may have a President, who seems to appreciate the discrete pleasures of having a vigorous intellectual debate, whenever he sees it.  This is not what you normally expect from a senior administrator, who would undoubtedly prefer a quick yes vote on submissions. He is also clearly a tough boss, who doesn’t mind seeing his executive challenged by Board members. He has minimal tolerance for rambling responses, and is often led to explain and clarify. I welcome his crisp interventions, even when we don’t see eye to eye.

Then the dean of your Faculty gets invited to address the Board, to talk about his record and to present his strategic plan.  “A ce moment de sa narration, Schahrazade vit apparaitre le matin et, discrète, se tut…”

So, how am I self-managing the emotional toll of my Board experience? Well, after some time, you realize that the best attitude to adopt is to sit back and wish. “Let’s hope they don’t screw-up too much, so that we don’t have to intervene too much”. I admit that this looms large in my head whenever I think “Housing Action Plan”.

But last Tuesday night, my family was happy to see me coming home cheerful for once after a Board meeting. They wondered why. I saw myself explaining how important it is to make room for some light moments during these long and intense days. Even BoG meetings need not be so serious, though we may have crossed a line when we morphed at the end of a long day into a rowdy focus group …

In any case, it has been reported that Barry, Doug and I may have had too much fun that day. We surely needed it.  Thank you guys.

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One Response to A day in the life of a University Governor

  1. Peter Bell says:

    Happy to see another post here. Please consider to become a full time writer!

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