Who wants to be a University Board Chair?

Jim Benson

Lead Consultant, AUA Consulting

Jim Benson is a Lead Consultant with AUA Consulting.  Jim has worked in higher education for 30 years, holding the position of Secretary to Council and University Secretary at Brunel University from 2007-2018 and now as University Secretary at the University of East London.  Formerly interim Board Clerk at Kingston University, he has also held posts as governance advisor at the London School of Economics and at Rose Bruford College.  

Over the last few years I have been involved in the appointment of several governing body chairs.  I am pleased to say that they seem to have been successful but that has been in no small part due to there being a candidate, currently serving on the board, willing to take on the role, who enjoys the support of fellow board members.  Setting aside the issue of finding someone who is the right fit for the institution, going externally for a new chair provides a different sort of challenge altogether.

The significant amount of work that boards and their chairs are expected to do is now evident and increasingly understood, not to mention their assuming considerable and wide-ranging responsibilities.  This has led to the issue of payment coming to the fore.  There does not seem to be a shortage of people willing and able to undertake the role of chair but the feedback I have received from several search consultants is that a university will not attract a diverse field unless payment is provided.  I am aware that several institutions have bitten this bullet and paid board chairs for some years.  I have arranged for employers to be reimbursed to release staff to participate in governance duties and while I recognise that it is not reasonable to expect someone to commit 60 or more days a year on an unremunerated basis, I still have an uncomfortable feeling about paying someone who is ultimately a charity trustee. 

The significant amount of work that boards and their chairs are expected to do is now evident and increasingly understood, not to mention their assuming considerable and wide-ranging responsibilities.

The coward in me is really saying I do not want to face the Charity Commission or the OfS as I seek to pay a chair knowing that the regulators will want evidence that a suitable candidate cannot be appointed without remuneration.  It is not just a few search consultants that are telling me that chairs should be paid; I recently heard a keynote talk at an AdvanceHE event on the importance of remunerating chairs, particularly thinking of those from minority backgrounds.  At my institution we considered this matter at the early stage of succession planning for our next chair and decided against paying – I supported the decision but with some reservations.

While I recognise that many will still do the role voluntarily, I consider we have moved to the stage where so much responsibility is placed in the role of the chair that it is essential an institution is given more latitude in being able to offer remuneration. We do need to attract a wide range of candidates and appoint those that are absolutely the best fit for the institution in question. The role is demanding and universities must be able to make demands on the individual performing it.  On that basis offering remuneration to the right person seems to be the right thing to do.

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