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A baptism of fire

By Mary Joyce

Dr Juliet Williams, chair of the University of St Mark & St John was interviewed by LF associate Mary Joyce, as part of our Governor Dialogues – a series of interviews with chairs of boards to share their innovative practice and thinking about their institutions and what they are doing to increase effectiveness. This is an edit of the interview, the full article will be published on the 12 March.

What are the governance issues that have preoccupied you as a relatively new chair of a church university? The first is how we manage our relationship with the Church of England, which is a really key issue for more than a handful of universities. The other is how we get younger people to join our boards.

As far as the church is concerned, we are tied in by virtue of the wording of our articles of association (we were founded by the church for the training of teachers). The precise wording of our present articles put me through a very difficult period in autumn 2012 when I was called upon to manage the recruitment of our first vice-chancellor. The articles told us that the appointee had to be a ‘practising Christian’. Well, what does that mean? What’s practising? Our sole purpose was to recruit the best and most suitable vice-chancellor we could. What would happen if the best candidate happened to be a Buddhist?

We found and hired the best candidate we were presented with because I fought for it. We found a vice-chancellor who will protect our values and Christian foundation regardless of their personal interpretation of the faith. But in the end, the only way to handle this is by changing the articles. It became very clear that this was important if the recruitment of a new vice-chancellor in the future was not to cause similar problems to those it had caused to me.

Where are the pressure points for you in that relationship with the church? It starts with representation. A third of our board members have to be churchmen or church nominees. Since my arrival we have appointed many new independent members but the board is unwieldy because we’ve got 25 on it and eight or so of those are nominated by the church. They don’t necessarily have the skills we need.

So what did you do and where did you start? The way in which I set about handling the board I inherited, which was not fit for purpose, was to do a major skills’ audit, right across the board. It revealed huge holes in the skills available to us and restricted what we were trying to do. It was the church representation that was the problem.

What skills in the board were you looking for that you didn’t have? Essentially they were high-level requirements: youth, commercialism and enough regional representation. There was certainly insufficient academic representation with university experience. Overall there wasn’t enough flexibility to provide for what was needed over time. I’ve now got three people under 35 on my board and am gradually building that because I believe that’s where we need to be to create the variety of interests that we need.

Student leadership The key bonus was the president of the Students’ Union. At 23 he was incredibly mature for his years and I invited him to virtually all of the major meetings that we had. He made excellent contributions and that’s one of the reasons why he’s now on the board. It is really important to give the students a voice in the management of the organisation. They are who we’re there for.

The size of the board You can’t engage everybody in the board’s activities if the board is too big. I think we’re going for 18 instead of 25. The church will be able to make nominations as before, but the nominations committee will now have to make sure the nominees have skills that are appropriate and required before they can be approved.

To have an active board is never an easy board to chair. If your board is easy to chair then, for me, it’s not performing to its full potential. The board needs to challenge you as chair as much as they need to challenge the issues that are on the agenda.

You’re quite unusual in that you’re one of the few female chairs of boards in the sector, with a female vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor. Are you aware of it making a difference to the way in which you work and do things? No. I think that it has helped in some ways. At the beginning, it was ideal that the deputy-vice-chancellor and I got on well, but that would be the same if it had been a man. I have tended to be the first, or only, woman to do my job at every point in my career. But I think that maybe we’ve got to take a lot more care in choosing the chairs of governing bodies, and the way in which they see
their responsibilities. I was lucky in that I’d chaired a public sector institution and there can’t be that many chairs who have. Perhaps it’s about understanding the nuances of the public sector, the challenges of higher education. In short, the way in which you manage change in an environment that is actually change averse.

What thoughts do you have about appraising yourself and your board? Every year my board members go through it and we try to do 360-degree feedback too. There are three elements to it: the individual’s view of the working of the board, their view of me, as the chair of the board, and their view of their own contribution. I go through the outcomes with members and we publish the overall findings. This has enormous benefit.

Is there a board discussion about the process and the outcomes in the context of board effectiveness, a report that you look at? Every year we publish the outcomes of the board effectiveness survey. I put together a two-to-three page bulletin once a month, which is available to everybody. We all make contributions − students, staff, the vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor. I’m the editor. The bulletin is for the governors but we are now embarking on a newsletter to staff from the board and posters for students.

What’s your view about the remuneration of governors? I certainly think that there ought to be reward for commitment of a specific number of days a month for the chair with a basic fee for board members. In today’s economic environment, this may well be the best way of attracting the best people to these roles.

Dr Juliet Williams CBE became chair of governors in May 2012. Juliet has been a teacher, publisher, journalist and editor of The Geographical Magazine and taken three companies through the struggle for survival to growth and profit. Since 1991 Juliet has run her own business consultancy, Strategic Management Resources. Her CBE came in 2009, principally in recognition of her having changed the face of the management of UK tourism with the creation of VisitEngland. Oxfam and VisitBritain are among Juliet’s many non-executive directorships.

Also in the Governor Dialogue series:

The alchemy of the board
Chris Sayer, University of Northumbria

Rethinking university governance and purpose
Denis Burn, University of Bristol

Leading the board through challenge and change
Tony Brian, Glasgow Caledonian University

Creating a board fit for purpose
Milan Shah, University of Northampton

Good governance and success
Chris Brown, University of Huddersfield

A baptism of fire
Dr Juliet Williams, University of St Mark and St John

Appointing a new vice-chancellor
Dr Bridget Towle, University of Leicester

Each interview is published to tie in with a Governor Development Programme event. Dr Juliet Williams' interview will be published on the 12 March at the Board Improvement and Effectiveness event - book a place


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