The news this week that the university’s Visitors – the two-judge panel that hears appeals against decisions made by College bodies – have decided that the controversial student charges were legitimately passed by the College Board, brings to light once again the governance issues that Trinity faces.
The Visitors’ decision seems to rest on their claim that there was “no convincing evidence” that there was no consensus at the meeting at which the charges were passed. To someone not familiar with how the College Board works, this surely will sound a bit odd. Just how is it that the Visitors had to look for evidence that there was no consensus? Was there not someone taking minutes, noting that a majority of members raised their hands in favour of introducing a set of student charges? For a Board that has 27 voting members, and often has far more in attendance at its meetings, you would assume that a raising of hands – something that can be done in mere seconds – is commonplace. Instead, it turns out that decisions are made at the board on the basis of consensus, and that it is up to just one person, the board’s chairperson, to determine if this consensus exists.
While it may not sound ideal that consensus is determined by the chairperson of the Board, it is at least something that this responsibility is bestowed on someone, as prescribed by the Universities Act. However, the College Board is chaired by the Provost, rather than an independent chairperson. While the Universities Act allows the Provost to chair the Board – in the same way it allows the presidents of other universities to chair their respective boards – Trinity is actually the only university in Ireland which does not have an independent chair. NUIG’s governing authority is chaired by a retired judge, while the University of Limerick has a former Supreme Court justice. Dermot McAleese chairs DCU’s board. And most corporations the same size of Trinity do not allow their CEO to chair their boards, because it is considered poor corporate practice.
Many have argued that the sense of the division in this university stems from issues with the Provost’s chairing of the Board. It cannot be argued that the Board picking an independent chairperson – something which the College statutes allow for – could result in anything but a positive step towards improving the way this university is governed.