Chairs and vice-chancellors: the relationship

Following the performance of Crossing the Line that took place on Thursday 30 November 2017, David Williams, governance web editor, Leadership Foundation reviews the dramatisation of the exchanges and experiences between vice-chancellors and chairs of boards.

Performed by professional actors, Crossing the Line, explores the views and actions of primarily chairs of governing bodies and vice-chancellors. The name of the role-play reflects the boundaries between the responsibilities of chairs of governing bodies and vice-chancellors, and how different ‘voices’ interpret ‘the line’ in discharging their responsibilities.

Crossing the Line is based on sixteen interviews with chairs of governing bodies and heads of institutions on how they view the chair-head relationship. The writer has used the transcript of the interviews to construct a short play, which adopts the format used by Dylan Thomas in the writing of Under Milk Wood.

A recurring mantra is that the relationship between chairs and vice-chancellors should operate on the basis of ‘trust, affection and respect’. However, the characters in the role-play illustrate that the ‘the line’ is interpreted differently by individual agents. The distinction between ‘rowing and steering’ is the demarcation between the work of the executive and that of governors. An understanding of the boundary is important. In practice, ‘the line’ is either protected or transgressed.

Using different institutional contexts and characters, colourful examples of the intentions and associated actions of different chairs and vice-chancellors are introduced. Some chairs have strong predetermined views, and come to the role with a mind-set of what ‘should be done’ or ‘how’ the relationship between the two agents must operate. Some chairs or governors focus on ‘pet’ concerns, such as ‘finance’, ‘the need to have a dashboard’ or making sure “all the instruments are playing” (i.e. all members of the governing body contribute).  Similarly, some vice-chancellors are portrayed as viewing governors as a nuisance: who get in the way. A question of how influential is a chair is raised. In one case, they are described as a ‘glorified stool’.

Relations between the governing body and heads of institution vary. In some instances, the relationship is closed and too cosy, in others the relationship is more open and difficult. The question of ‘professional distance is raised’. The role-play suggests that the only ‘sanction of the Board’ if they believe they have a major problem with the institution’s head is to remove them.

The multi-faceted role of the vice-chancellor is recognised, and the role of the registrar/secretary briefly mentioned. Vice-chancellors are highly intelligent, as is the possibility that they can sometimes act in egotistical way. Constructive dialogue between the chair and the vice-chancellor is vital. The ability to raise issues in private conversations, rather than at the Board is important. Difficult conversations are sometimes needed. The possible role of the registrar/secretary to act as a ‘go between’ is noted.

Questions raised as to the membership of the governing body include, length of service, whether to seek new governors with a view to youth or experience and the need for business experience on Boards. The concern that governors don’t understand the academic context is introduced. This is tied to the risk that governors unfamiliar with higher education may believe ‘nothing is different’, when compared to how private sector Boards work.

Getting the balance between trusting and challenging the executive is important. The asymmetry of information between the executive and the governing body is captured by the phrase: “you do not know, what you do not know”.

Crossing the Line was deliberately provocative, but equally contains examples which many involved in higher education governance are likely to recognise. Those who watched the role-play commented that how the chair and vice-chancellor work together is essentially about the relationship between two people. Understanding the roles of each is critical, as is the emotional intelligence of both parties. Listening skills in particular are often important. Both parties have a responsibility to make the relationship work.

For more about this key university relationship read the new Leadership Insights Managing the Chair/Vice-Chancellor Relationship:

Coming soon 
A second performance of Crossing the Line is planned for 2018. If you are interested in attending, please complete the form below: 

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