Trinity’s Board Review Working Group has recommended the separation of the roles of provost and Board chair, alongside a rake of changes that could drastically change the way College’s most senior decision-making body is run.
The working group’s final report, which was obtained by The University Times, recommends that Board retains an internal majority of members – contradicting the controversial Higher Education Authority Bill, which would see universities’ governing boards comprise a majority of external members.
The report outlines a proposal for Board makeup that could be included in a Private Members’ Bill to be taken to the Oireachtas to enable Trinity to be exempt from the Higher Education Authority Bill.
The government has previously indicated that it is willing to give Trinity more flexibility than other universities on future governance.
According to the report, “the Working Group notes that while there are both advantages and disadvantages to the combined role of Board Chair and an organisation’s Chief Officer (Provost in Trinity’s case), it recommends separating the role of the Provost and the Chair of the Board (but only in the context of maintaining a majority of internal members on the Board)”.
“If Trinity were to implement the separation of the roles of Provost and Chairperson of the Board then it would need to be understood that management and governance would need to be enshrined in the Statutes and, perhaps more importantly, in Trinity’s culture”, it added.
The report also proposes changing the Board appointment process from an election process to a “formal selection process” based on a “competency framework”.
The report gave suggested criteria for appointing Board members, which include “appreciation for and commitment to the collegiate nature of governance in Trinity”, “commitment to the values and principles underlying Trinity’s governance” and “commitment to the principle of collective responsibility for Board’s decisions and to a University-wide vision, rising above disciplinary concerns or the agendas of interest groups”.
“The composition of the internal staff membership should be informed by the competency framework”, the report added. “It should continue to include the Provost, Officer Fellows, and elected members of the Fellows, and the wider community of academic, professional, administrative and support staff.”
“It is proposed that the Provost, Fellows and staff would make up the majority, with specific categories for elected Fellows, academic staff and professional, administrative and support staff.”
The working group has recommended reducing the size of Board – something which, as previously reported by this newspaper, Board members have previously expressed concern about.
Minutes from a Board meeting on May 26th, where the working group’s penultimate report was discussed, said that a “lengthy and robust discussion” took place about “some of the recommendations contained within the draft penultimate Report”.
If implemented, there would be more external members on Board – there are currently two – but internal members would still make up the majority.
“In the view of the Working Group this would maintain autonomy and reflect Trinity’s distinct collegiate approach to governance and its unique legal structure”, the report said.
Reducing the number of Board members “would lead to a more effective Board overall, supporting more focused and interactive discussion”, it added, which in turn would allow for “more robust and detailed discussions on strategic matters, and facilitating the ‘agency’ of the Board”.
It was also recommended that the senior lecturer no longer serve on Board. Kevin Mitchell, Trinity’s current senior lecturer, declined to comment on this.
The working group has also proposed halving the number of Board meetings per year, from 12 to six, “with an agenda more focused on strategic issues”.
Trinity declined to comment on the report due to the confidential nature of Board discussion.
The government has left the door open to more flexibility in how Trinity is governed in the future with regard to the Higher Education Authority Bill: in the heads of bill published earlier this year, Trinity was the only university specifically mentioned as being excluded from some of the proposed reforms to college governance.
The legislation proposes that Trinity’s governing authority – College Board – will accord with the principles of the proposed legislation “but there may be some differences reflecting the distinct legislative framework”.
This likely means that the government will take Trinity’s unique governance structures into account – as was the case in 2000, when a private bill was passed exempting College from some substantial reforms made by the 1997 Universities Act.
Minutes from a Board meeting on May 26th said that Provost Patrick Prendergast “plans to engage again with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (FHERIS) and his officials in the coming months to establish what might be achievable for Trinity in respect of the Government’s proposals”.
The working group’s final report said: “The Group believes that a successful outcome to this process can be accommodated through the mechanism of a Private Bill to be introduced in the Oireachtas and to be enacted following the passing of the Higher Education Bill 2021.”