In Focus
May 20, 2015

Provost’s Lack of Respect at College Board Reflects Issues with his Chairing, say Board Members

Division and disenfranchisement in Trinity, arising from the Provost’s lack of respect for debate among Board members, has led to comments that the Board is “barely functional”.

Edmund HeaphyDeputy Editor

A “town hall-style” meeting about the changes to Trinity’s branding, held in April last year, represented the first outward manifestation of a sense of division and disenfranchisement in the university.

While every shouted remark commented on the then-proposed logo – which was perceived to be toy-like and was called “botched” and “cheap, bland and insipid” by senior academics – there was a distinct feeling that the widespread uproar was more about the lack of consultation and the lack of a process that valued the contributions of the traditional structures in Trinity, rather than all about a bad logo.

While the Provost said that he would consult widely on any further changes to the logo, he was careful to remind the audience that “Board is the final decider, not a town hall”.


It is telling, then, that there has been that same sense of division and disunity on the College Board – often described as a heavy-handed, top-down lack of respect from the Provost for the views of board members, and a stifling of debate at the highest levels. The Board is Trinity’s most important, and most senior, decision-making body.

“The Board itself has come to typify precisely the disenfranchised, divided atmosphere that pervades much of the Trinity community”, said Domhnall McGlacken-Byrne, President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union. As President, McGlacken-Byrne is one of four student representatives who sit on the College Board.

McGlacken-Byrne said that he felt the manner in which the last meeting of the Board was chaired by the Provost was “frankly outrageous”, and said that he “was deeply dismayed by the rudeness that characterised a number of exchanges”.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a non-student Board member strongly echoed McGlacken-Byrne’s assessment of the meeting, saying: “I was treated at that board meeting with disrespect – I in return have no further respect for the way the college is being run.”

The University Times contacted many of the non-student members of Board, which is composed of the Provost, Vice-Provost, three senior College officers, seven elected Fellows and Fellow professors, five non-Fellow academic staff, three non-academic staff, and two external members, as well as the student representatives.

Several non-student members were willing to provide comment to The University Times, although all spoke on the condition of anonymity.

It’s all of apiece with the other aspects of disrespect, like the pushing things through and the shutting down of discussion.

While many were unwilling to provide comment, not a single Board member contacted expressed any disagreement with what was characterised as a “repeated pattern” at Board, consisting of a “completely unproductive and authoritarian attitude to discussing matters of significance at Board level”. Many expressed that they were hoping to raise these issues at next Wednesday’s Board meeting.

Another non-student Board member said: “The Provost chairs meetings fairly so long as the general direction of the discussion supports the plans of his executive team. However, it can be difficult in the room if there are many speakers disagreeing with him, which was very clearly shown in the last two meetings.”

A former non-student member, who sat on the Board under the current Provost until last September, said: “I had the impression that Board members are neither valued nor respected. Everybody who is on Board is there to serve the university, but often the impression from the Provost can be that we are just bothering him in the implementation of his plans. That’s something that I was pretty shocked about.”

They went on: “Often the Provost contends that we all agree that something is the case, and this may not be at all what you think, and then you realise afterwards that other people didn’t think that way either. There definitely is a dictatorial approach to Board. Sometimes it’s just going through the motions without necessarily respecting or valuing the Board.”

Other comments from non-student Board members reflected this. “The Board is barely functional. Debate is frequently closed down, there is a crowded agenda and truncated discussion, and material for Board gets circulated very late”, one said.

Several of those contacted indicated that the consistent lateness in the circulation of the Board’s agenda and relevant documents was a more significant problem than would be immediately apparent. Board meetings, held on Wednesdays, are held once a month, and regularly, the dozens of associated and confidential documents don’t arrive until late on the Friday beforehand.

Another former non-student Board member said: “The increasing tardiness – especially in the circulation of Board papers – is all of apiece with the other aspects of disrespect, like the pushing things through and the shutting down of discussion.”

Certainly I am not happy with the response by management to either the content or the process issues.

There are two levels of circulation of Board documents – one set of documents that go out to various College bodies, such as University Council and the Fellows Standing Committee, and a further set that includes those documents as well as a further group of restricted documents which are sent to Board members only. The set that includes the restricted documents is sent first, and the set without them, which gets the wider circulation, is sent later.

The day before Board meetings, the Provost meets with the Fellows Standing Committee, composed of the eight fellows who sit on Board, and seven other fellows, to hear their views and concerns. It is understood that the Standing Committee regularly complains about how late they receive Board documents. A Fellow who is a member of the Fellows Standing Committee said: “The limited circulation of Board documents has been so late that twice we’ve had to cancel our meetings with the Provost”.

Further indications from across the College community suggest that the sense of division goes a lot further than just the College Board. A senior member of University Council agreed that there was a sense of division in the university, and said that matters were “as bad” on the council.

One non-student Board member said that the issues at Board “highlight one of the governance problems with having the same person act as Chief Executive of the organisation and the Chairman of the Board, which is not the norm and Trinity is unique amongst the universities in this regard.”

Three other Board members expressed concern about the Provost’s dual role.

On the other hand, Senator Sean Barrett, a Fellow who has been elected to Board several times, and served on Board under the current Provost until last year, said that he would be wary of replacing the Provost in the chair: “I do not oppose in principle the Provost chairing Board meetings. Members are able to call him to account. College is collegiate and autonomous.” He went on: “Unseating the Provost might leave us open to the imposition of an unelected chair from some of the sectors which brought the Irish economy to its knees from 2008 to 2010.”

Prof Eoin O’Dell, who is both Chair of the Fellows and an Associate Professor in the Law School, said that “Best corporate practice would be to separate the roles of chairperson of the Board and chief executive officer. In any corporation the size of Trinity, those roles would be separated”.

O’Dell, who chaired the four-year period of revision of the College statutes by the Statutes Review Working Party, pointed out that the statutes, as they stand, allow for Board to appoint an independent chair.

The Provost did not respond to any of the assertions in this piece, despite a request for comment from The University Times. Instead, the Provost asked the Secretary to the College, Mr John Coman, to reply to the request for comment. Coman is secretary to the College Board, and sits on the Executive Officer Group of the College.

Coman noted that the Provost had asked him to emphasise that “as Provost and Chair of the Board he welcomes the views of all of the Board members”, and Coman highlighted that Board members are “entitled to raise them with the Provost or with me as Secretary to the Board, or directly at a Board meeting.”

The Provost puts forward his “own personal agenda in a biased way”, he said.

Coman said that the issue of the Provost’s role as chief officer of the College and Chair of the Board was addressed as recently as 2013 by a sub-group of the board, which included staff and student representatives. Minutes from a Board meeting in June 2013 said that the sub-group was “satisfied that sufficient safeguards were in place to avoid a conflict of interest arising, noting that a similar conclusion had been reached by the Working Party considering the matter in 2007”. To counteract any potential conflicts, it was suggested that the Provost should provide the Board with an annual report and an annual workplan. Coman confirmed that this has been implemented since then.

Yet, details from Board meetings make it obvious that sometimes these supposed safeguards fail to prevent the shutting down of debate when there is an appetite for it. McGlacken-Byrne has raised concerns about the way important matters were discussed at Board. At the last meeting, for example, a discussion about a quality review report of one of College’s core non-academic services quickly devolved into a discussion on the service’s funding model, and “the need to consider introducing a fee for students wishing to access it”. McGlacken-Byrne said: “I then asked a question as to next year’s budget for the service, which was entirely ignored.”

A memo submitted for the Board’s “any other urgent business” section by McGlacken-Byrne, proposing a discussion on the “capability of Trinity as a community to campaign in a truly collegial fashion for the greater investment that is so urgently needed” received no substantive response, he said. “I feel that, so far, attempts such as this one to foster genuine collaboration on this front have got absolutely nowhere and have been superseded by internal conflicts.”

There were also significant concerns expressed at the meeting that a new hiring policy, relating to contracts for administrative and support staff, has been approved without any consultation with the Human Resources committee. It “actually circumvented the College’s HR Committee entirely”, McGlacken-Byrne said. When concern was expressed by a Board member, his remark was “largely ignored”, while “another Board member’s remark was then interrupted and cut short” by the Provost. “I felt that this was absolutely lamentable”, McGlacken-Byrne said.

The University Times has obtained a copy of an email sent to the 14-member Human Resources committee, by its chair, Mr Dermot Frost, following the Board meeting in question. The email suggests that the concerns about the policy surround issues that it is lacking in scope, will pose difficulties for future hiring, and is both “anti-family” and “anti-women”.

The point the Committee wishes to illustrate here is the manifestation of a sense of division in the organisation.

The email also suggests that, in response to these concerns and the issue of the circumvention of the committee, the College’s Chief Operating Officer, Geraldine Ruane, said that the change came about because of the financial constraints the College is operating under. It also resulted from restructuring required as part of several programmes, such as START, a structural-reform programme that commenced in October 2013, as well as “benefits realisation” from the Genesis and FIS projects, a student information system project and a new financial information service project, respectively.

“As it was at the end of a very long meeting, the Provost did not allow a discussion to develop on any of these issues”, Frost said in the email. “Certainly I am not happy with the response by management to either the content or the process issues.”

In response to a query about this policy, Coman said that “clarification was provided” at the Board meeting and that the “contributions made will be captured in the minutes”.

No direct response was made to a request to see the preliminary minutes of the meeting before they are approved at next Wednesday’s meeting. As well as that, other than a reference to a section of the Trinity Code of Governance relating to professionalism, courtesy and respect, no direct response was given to the assertions that the Provost is unnecessarily rude in Board meetings.

As a result of a query from The University Times, an analysis of contributions made at the most recent board meeting was conducted by the College, in an effort to show the difficulty that the Provost has in ensuring that all 27 Board members have “a reasonable opportunity to voice their contributions and receive a fair proportion of time for their comments to be discussed and considered.”

“The Provost also has responsibility as Chair to ensure effective time management, not just for the meeting as a whole but also for each item”, said Coman.

The analysis showed that there were 60 contributions by elected Board members from outside the Executive Officer Group, including 12 contributions from the four student Board members, and that almost all 27 Board members spoke during the meeting.

“It should be noted that the meeting took more time than the scheduled three hours to complete and it was agreed that further data would be collated and circulated on one agenda item to assist with a further discussion at the next Board meeting”, Coman said.

However, the suggestion that problems arise simply from well-meaning attempts at effective time management contradict the views of even the student representatives. Ian Mooney, Welfare Officer of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union, sits on the Board. The Provost puts forward his “own personal agenda in a biased way”, he said. “He shut down very important and relevant topics of discussion probably because he didn’t want to talk about it himself when it wasn’t the opinion of the Board”.

Board cannot be a rubber stamp for managerialism.

The Annual Report of the Audit committee, a copy of which was obtained by The University Times, seems, in parts, to echo the wider concerns about the feeling in the university. In a section commenting on College governance and the implementation of the START and FIS projects, it said that implementation of FIS, the new integrated financial information system, was concentrated around putting it in place centrally and then rolling it out, even though there was wide consultation in the early stages.

“There have been implications arising from this, commented on later in this report, but the point the Committee wishes to illustrate here is the manifestation of a sense of division in the organisation”, the report said.

This matches with McGlacken-Byrne’s summary: “Manifestations of this sense of division are arising with increasing frequency, and the pressure that it is placing on staff is fundamentally unsustainable.”

Senator Barrett insisted that there “should be a spirit of friendship between Board members”, and said that while it was “not a matter of personalities”, “Board cannot be a rubber stamp for managerialism”. He also pointed to the severe financial pressure that the university is under, and how it was not an “easy time” to be head of a college.

He concluded: “Board should never allow the sun to set on its anger”.

Edmund Heaphy, the Deputy Editor of The University Times, currently serves as Acting Editor. Elected to a full term as Editor last February, he will take office in July.

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