Comment & Analysis
Apr 30, 2020

Reshaping Board Will Change Trinity’s Governance – And Not for the Better

Prof Eunan O'Halpin, a two-time member of College Board, says history does not support the ideas underpinning proposed alterations to Board.

Eunan O'HalpinOp-Ed Contributor
Ruby Smyth for The University Times

Trinity has established a high-level working group to advise College Board on possible restructuring of Board so as to enhance its effectiveness. This is in response to the Higher Education Authority’s (HEA) recent prognostications on the governance of third-level educational institutions, which envisage a “one size fits all” approach.

The assumptions that underpin the working group are a) that a smaller Board will necessarily provide better governance in terms both of strategic direction and of oversight of administration; b) that an increase in, or perhaps a preponderance, of external Board members automatically leads to better governance in all third/fourth level institutions; and c) that all Board members should possess demonstrable “competences” – presumably to be tested in some pseudoscientific matrix or Tinder-like app.

I was one of only three internal members nominated by staff on the Dublin City University (DCU) board from 1993 to 1997, whereas from 1997 to 2000 I was in a large minority of elected staff members. That university has flourished under the new system of governance, which gave staff a real say. In College, I was elected to Board from 2005 to 2012, and again from 2015 to 2020. I thus have an unusual span of experience of university governance, if not necessarily of wisdom.


The HEA’s proposals have clearly been prompted by recent well-advertised problems of governance in some institutions, and by a general sense that the sector is insufficiently responsive to national policy imperatives and control. The creation of two new technological universities from a range of Institutes of Technology (ITs), which hitherto have each had very large boards dominated by local political and commercial interests, has pushed the general question of university governance up the HEA’s policy agenda.

The changes assume that all Board members should possess demonstrable “competences” – presumably to be tested in some pseudoscientific matrix or Tinder-like app

The result, if the state has its way, is that all third-level institutions, whatever their missions, locations and histories, and however strong their performance in national and international terms, are to have precisely the same governance structure.

The HEA’s argument is based on the assumption that all third-level institutions are both uniform and underperforming. What criteria are they using? How do they know?

In the cases of Trinity and of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI), each of them privately owned, this drive for uniformity in governance represents a radical departure. In essence, in order to address governance problems obvious in some institutions (mainly though not exclusively in the former IT sector) – the intrusion of local political interests in administration, the dubious behaviour and grotesque overspending of senior management, excessive local chauvinism inhibiting sensible collaboration with other institutions, a coercive approach to staff discontent and dissent, interference in appointments and promotions – all third-level institutions are to have the same slimmed-down, expert boards dominated by disinterested competent external governors, with a brief to focus on grand strategy rather than grubby detail.

Yet the biggest scandals in Irish third-level governance, and the poorest performance, have arisen in institutions that already have a preponderance of external board members. This issue is not confined to the IT sector: newspaper reports show how the governing boards of various National University of Ireland (NUI) colleges, not least my alma mater University College Dublin (UCD), sometimes overrode by majority vote the nominations for professorships made by academic appointment boards. They picked instead lower-ranked candidates whose supporters persuaded external members – sundry local magnates, county councillors and the like – of the superior virtues of their favourites. Do we want to go down that route?

Board made a mistake not in appointing the working group, but in allowing a remit that presumed that Board is not working effectively

Board made a mistake not in appointing the working group, but in allowing a remit that presumed that Board is not working effectively and that one with fewer internal members would do a better job. This hinges on a tacit assumption that elected staff representatives are essentially grievance peddlers incapable of disinterested strategic thinking, really no better than shop stewards wearing gowns. It ignores the representative quality of university boards, which are quite unlike commercial boards and should not be confused with them in terms of purpose, ethos or performance.

Trinity has survived and prospered for over 400 years. It has a history of slow but successful adaption internally and in its relation to wider Irish society. In the last century, Board has changed radically in character and size: women members are no longer a novelty; junior academics, technical and administrative staff, and undergraduate and postgraduate students, are now all represented.

Has this inhibited College’s performance? On the contrary: the ghastly helter-skelters of university rankings notwithstanding, the evidence is overwhelming that in the last 30 years College’s international standing in research, and its connectivity with Ireland and the wider world, has been transformed for the better. A radical reconstitution or reduction in size of Board will be a retrograde step, resulting in a less consensual and more authoritarian form of university management, and in dilution of staff and student input into and commitment to change. It will reduce Trinity’s distinctive character in the Irish system, and hamper rather than enhance the university’s internal operations as well as its strategic governance. Universities serve stakeholders, not shareholders.

Prof Eunan O’Halpin is the Bank of Ireland Professor of Contemporary Irish History. He served on Board from 2005 to 2012, and was elected again to serve from 2015 to 2020.

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