Explainer: How the shape of College Board is set to change

What the changes are, their implications for students, and the feedback process

Trinity’s Board is on track to adopt a significantly changed structure in the near future, with the clearest image of what that may look like to date outlined in a consultation paper published on Wednesday by the Board Review Working Group.

The consultation paper outlines notable proposed changes to Board’s structure and operations, which largely stem from suggestions made in a self-evaluation of Board by its members in 2018. In addition to the working group’s proposals, the future of Board will also be influenced by the government, which is currently considering legislative changes to the role of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) and the governance of universities across Ireland. 

Among the most significant potential departures from Board’s current shape are the cutting of Board’s membership in half, including a decrease in student representatives from four to two or one; the introduction of more external members to consist of between 30-40% of Board’s members; and the separation of the roles of Provost and Chair of Board.

Board’s role

Board is Trinity’s highest governing authority. Under College’s Statutes, Board holds power to oversee “all the greater affairs of College”, including “education, scholarship, ethics, discipline, finance, and external relations”. The powers that Board has, and the members that sit on Board, are outlined by College’s Statutes – the rules by which Trinity operates. 

In 2018/2019, Board held 12 meetings, during which it made decisions on issues such as College’s latest strategic plan, the final phase of implementing the Trinity Education Project (TEP) and capital projects like the construction of Printing House Square. 

From 27 to 15 (or fewer)

The most expansive restructure proposed by the working group is the change in the size and composition of Board’s membership.

Currently, Board is made up of 27 members drawn from a range of areas across College. Senior College officials including the Provost, Vice-Provost, Senior Lecturer, Registrar, and the Bursar, sit on Board. In addition, six fellows, five non-fellow members of the academic staff, two professors, three non-academic staff, four students, one non-employee and non-student, and one representative from the Minister of Education have a seat at the table. 

Although a place is held at Board for a nominee of the Minister of Education and Skills, in 2018/2019, the role was vacant – there was no nominee in attendance at any of Board’s 12 meetings during that academic year.

The four students on Board include the Presidents of Trinity College Students’ Union (TCDSU) and the Graduate Students’ Union (GSU), as well as the TCDSU Education Officer and TCDSU Welfare Officer.

The working group recommends reducing this number from 27 members to a Board consisting of between 11 and 15 members. The rationale given behind a reduction in the size of Board is that a smaller Board could enhance the engagement of each member and increase overall effectiveness of Board.

In autumn of last year, when similar changes were proposed by Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, they were met with public opposition by some senior academics on Board, who warned that there would be “grave consequences for the College’s autonomy and identity if the Government’s proposals were to be implemented”, according to the Irish Examiner.

The consultation paper recommends the continued inclusion of “the principle of student representation”. A 15 or 13 member board would have space for two student representatives, however an 11 member board would have room for only one representative of students. The consultation paper does not give an indication as to whether that member would represent undergraduate students or postgraduate students. 

External members

The working group has also suggested a greater number of external members on Board. This recommendation was included in the government proposals which were criticised by the College’s senior academics last autumn. Board members’ main criticism of external members was the potential loss of Trinity’s autonomy. The working group has noted that while external members should be included, they should only make up between 30-40% of Board, with the paper insisting that a majority of internal members on Board would preserve Trinity’s autonomy. 

One aspect which was criticised in Board’s 2018 self-evaluation was the lack of membership with expertise in finance and governance, with this having particular implications considering Board’s control over new capital projects. To ensure greater skill and expertise in these areas, the working group has suggested a competency framework to be used when selecting members. 

This competency framework consists of a fundamental values section and a desirable skills section. Twelve desirable skills are outlined, which are intended to reflect the needs of the University, including expertise and experience in leadership, financial planning, stakeholder relations and innovation. The framework would be taken into consideration while electing internal members to Board. For external members, the working group suggests they be “head-hunted” for their relevant expertise in accordance with the framework.  

Notably, the working group also suggests that since the Presidents of the relevant Students’ Unions have board membership, this competency framework should be implemented in the election process of TCDSU and GSU sabbatical officers. This suggests candidates would need to conform to the competency framework before being considered for election. 

“In order to comply with the principles of good governance, and recognising the important role of Students Unions’ officers in college governance, it is recommended that the Student Unions integrate the proposed competency framework for Board membership into their respective Sabbatical Officer election processes,” the working group outlined in its consultation document.

The introduction of more external members to Board has been criticised by GSU President-elect Gisèle Scanlon, who emphasised the importance of having Board members with a mandate from the College and who are accountable to the College. “That may not be the case for somebody external who’s put on Board from industry for example,” Scanlon said.

As an alternative, Scanlon suggested that more external experts could be invited to present to Board to give input on areas in which they have expertise, but emphasised that decisions about the governance of the College should come from within the College. 

Separation of Chair and Provost

The restructuring of the composition of Board could also include the separation of the Chair of the Board from the Provost, as traditionally both positions have been held by the same person. The consultation paper says this is to ensure Board can “constructively challenge College leadership.”

In suggesting the separation of the roles, the working group acknowledged that combining the role of a Board’s chair and the organisation’s leader has both “advantages and disadvantages”. 

“The working group appreciates that there is always a danger in changing a practice that has worked well for many years, and recognises too that separating the roles would only be part of a wider set of changes which would include moving management activities off the Board agenda,” it outlined.

In the current manifestation of the Chair and Provost positions, the group described the roles as “intertwined” in Trinity, and cautioned that “the special responsibility the Provost in representing the College and of the Chair of the Board in chairing Board meetings would need to be clearly delineated”.

“The responsibility of the Chair would be to conduct the business of Board, so that an atmosphere of frank engagement enables each member of Board to contribute to well considered policy decisions and effective oversight.”

Provost Patrick Prendergast is the current Chair of Board, and has served in the role since his election in 2011. A new provost is due to be elected in 2021.

The release of the Consultation Paper is the first step in the working group’s consultation process. The working group is now accepting feedback from the College’s staff and students and are expected to use that to inform their final report, which is to be presented to Board in Michaelmas 2020. 

A webinar hosted by the Provost is scheduled for 10am on July 21 to discuss the working group’s proposed changes. Submissions on the proposals can be made by any member (or group of members) of the College community, and are now being accepted by College until September 16. Details on the webinar and the formal submission process were circulated in an email from the Provost to the College community on Wednesday.

Kate Glen

Kate Glen is a News Analysis Editor for Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister History and Political Science student.