Is your governing body biased?

Is cognitive bias and the use of heuristics responsible for poor decision-making in higher education? Do members of the governing body have unconscious biases? These are some of the issues explored by new research published by the Leadership Foundation.

The authors of the report The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences examine the question of “heuristics and biases in board decision-making”, which raises some interesting questions.

Major board decisions typically involve complexity, and governors making judgements reflecting uncertainty. Limitations of time and processing power typically mean humans use simple rules of thumb – heuristics – to help guide their judgements. These are often helpful, but can sometimes lead to severe biases. This risk, together with cognitive bias – influencing individual preferences – is the subject of this newly published report.

When making decisions governors are unlikely to be aware of their own biases, and how these influence their judgements. Aside from action to reduce unconscious bias on equality and diversity, the report suggests no work has been done to raise awareness of others biases likely to be present in higher education governance. As a result, poor decisions may have resulted.

The risk of bias is increased when there a dominant decision-maker(s), complacent or intransigent attitudes, and group think. All of these, the report suggests, are commonly found in higher education governance.

Compared to the governing body or senate (or academic board), the power of heads of institutions (“personalised leadership”) and executives has increased. There is typically an imbalance in the frequency by which governors support and challenge the executive, and some governing bodies are too compliant in accepting of the view of the executive. Equally, the “voice of senate” should be heard. Overall, in most institutions a growing “management culture” is seen to have reduced the checks on the power of the executive.

The governance system, revolving around the relationships between a governing body, the senate, and the executive are critical if institutional governance is to be effective. The system involves “shared governance”. Recent studies on academic governance found, in too many cases, senates and governing bodies didn’t fully understand each other’s role and responsibilities. This is potentially a critical weakness. Faced with a more disruptive operating environment, resulting in increased risk and the need for faster decision-making, this raises the question of how the system of governance should evolve in the future?

Removing all biases to decision-making is difficult (and maybe impossible). The situation will be made worse if there is group think. Would changing the composition of the governing body address this issue? Is there a need to recruit from a more diverse base (in the widest sense) to enrich the membership of governing bodies beyond those groups who have traditionally been represented?

Similarly, as the boundaries between academic and corporate governance blur how does this affect the membership of the governing body? In addition to governors bringing intelligence, good judgement and commitment, is domain knowledge of higher education important? Does the Board need members, independent of the executive, with a background in higher education? If so, what proportion of governors should have higher education expertise, and what expertise? Do you need someone with expertise in, say, higher education policy or quality assurance or university management or administration?

What other issues require attention? Few would argue with the idea of providing sufficient time and (relevant!) information to allow governors to make informed decisions. But how easy is this in practice given the number of times governing bodies typically meet, and the size of most agendas when they do? Is a fundamental rethink to the model of governance required?

The idea that governing bodies should review past decisions, focusing not just on the decision made, but on the process, is to be promoted. This would establish a feedback-loop, enabling the governing body to reflect on the decision-making process and decisions made. However, a “full public disclosure” of the effectiveness reviews of governing bodies is likely to produce documents placed in the public domain that say very little.

Having raised the issue about the quality of Board decision-making, the authors of the report acknowledge that there is the need for more detailed research on how governing bodies make their decisions. Given a lack of sound and recent field research on the topic, this is arguably pressing. Not least there is a risk that cases of poor governance are highlighted in the media, while the many cases of effective governance remain hidden. Perhaps now is the time for the sector to undertake the necessary research and produce evidence to counter hear-say and ill-informed statements? If this happens, the authors of the current report will have served the sector well.

David Williams edits the governance section of the Leadership Foundation’s website. News alerts and notices of forthcoming events for governors and professional staff working in governance are regularly posted on the website. The website also contains an information repository, offering a range of resources to governors and those who support their work.

The Quality of Board Decision-Making Processes in Higher Education Institutions: UK and European Experiences is one of our Small Development Projects. Access the report hereThe 2018 Small Development Projects will be announced shortly. For more on all the Leadership Foundation’s Small Development Projects visit:

For more information on our governance work visit: