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: www.lfhe.ac.uk/SDP

For more information on our governance work visit: www.lfhe.ac.uk/governance 

How I got onto a board

Jenny Ames worked in academia for 35 years across eight universities. Keen to join a board she attended a Women onto Boards event in 2017 and was appointed board member of Aneurin Leisure in July 2017. Here she reflects on her personal journey to board member.  

Becoming a board member is something that I started to seriously consider around 10 years ago, but the seeds were sown much earlier at the beginning of my career.

My background is in food chemistry research, as an applied subject this meant much of my research involved collaborating with industry. For example my first postdoctoral contract was funded by an American multi-national and following that as a head of my research group, most of my grants involved at least one external company. I enjoyed working with people from the private sector, learning how their companies operated and seeing my expertise being applied to address the challenges they faced. They valued my knowledge and ability to manage my research team and deliver projects on time. I got a sense of achievement.

Get a mentor or coach who is right for you

When I started my academic career in the early 1980s, there was no Leadership Foundation and, at least in my university, no culture of formal mentoring or coaching. From 2005-2017 I lived away from the family home in the week and progressed my career at four universities in different parts of the UK. It became important to me to be part of the community where I worked. I had also reached the stage where I had a wealth of experience that others could benefit from, including mentoring however, it was only in my last 10 years in academia that I myself benefited from various mentors and coaches to whom I will always be grateful.

The most valuable experience I had was with a professional coach and it was she who encouraged me to work towards a board role. The advice was three-fold: find someone who has such a role and ask to shadow them, go on a course so you understand more about what it involves, and join the Institute of Directors (IoD). I didn’t get around to shadowing someone but I did join the IoD.

Learn the basics

Importantly, my faculty supported me to attend an intensive two-day programme, The Effective Non-Executive Director, run by the Financial Times. This covered the soft skills and the hard skills required of a successful non-executive director (NED). This course gave me the tools I needed and it included a session with a NED head hunter. She advised that for someone who hadn’t been on a board before (like me), a good place to start was as a school governor or a trustee of a charity. Another attendee suggested joining Women on Boards to find possible roles. I also engaged with Reach Volunteering and I registered on the SGOSS Governors for Schools website.

Understand the value of the skills you do have and know your own values

It was the SGOSS site where I found an advert for a school governor about 10 miles from my flat. I applied, met with the head teacher and chair and deputy chair of the Board of Governors and was appointed.

I have a separate CV and covering letter template for board roles. The focus is hard skills like budgeting, health and safety, and governance. Soft skills include committee chairing and mentoring. I do not have any children, and so had no experience or knowledge of the current school system, but working at a local university was attractive to the school along with my experience of, for example, managing budgets and chairing large, formal meetings (although all in a research context). It was also important to be able to demonstrate that my values about enabling people to reach their potential aligned with their own.

This role got me off the starting blocks and I was very fortunate to find myself in an excellently run school. I learnt a lot about school education and was able to contribute to the finance and resource sub-committee. I left after a year as I was moving to another university.

Use your network

Early in 2017 I attended one of the Leadership Foundation Women onto Boards events aimed at encouraging more women to apply for a board position. Having given up the school governor role and done nothing since I decided to look for a new position. One point made at the event was that men often get a board position by asking someone in their network for help. Having a large and diverse network, I decided to take this approach. I had recently met someone at a regional IoD meeting and was due to follow up with him. When I asked for advice about a board role, he mentioned that something was coming up that might suit me. He put me in touch with the organisation so I could find out more. Shortly afterwards the job was advertised nationally and I applied. I was interviewed in June and appointed in July 2017 as a member of the board of trustees at Aneurin Leisure in South Wales.  It is early days and I plan to spend a day with the trust to help me to better understand how I can contribute.

A final word

It is important to join an organisation that you feel passionate about. One whose values align with your own. You are contributing your time and skills, usually for free. If you and the organisation are well aligned, you will both be amply rewarded.


Women onto Boards
For more information about the series including dates, location, pricing and how to book your place visit the Women onto Boards homepage.

Governor Development
Find out the latest in governance, including recent publications and what’s next in the Governor Development Programme, via our website

Our Equality and Diversity Programmes
The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education is committed to addressing the lack of representation in senior executive leadership positions of both women and people from BME backgrounds. You can find out more here.

About Jenny
Jenny Ames had a 35 year academic career across eight universities before establishing Jenny Ames Consulting Ltd in 2017. She works with universities, businesses and their stakeholders to develop strategy and talent and initiate and nurture cross sector collaborations. Jenny is now a member of the board at Aneurin Leisure and an Aurora role model.