Last week, when College Board rejected a long-anticipated set of proposals that sought to remodel its future, many members felt like they were dealing less with the results of an internal process of self-reflection, and more with the thin end of a deeply contentious wedge: autonomy.
In education circles, third-level’s agency has been a hot-button issue for years, with recalcitrant universities meeting a government increasingly agitated at colleges often unable to keep their scandals out of the newspaper.
In Trinity, governance issues haven’t hit the headlines as damningly as elsewhere. But College has not been short of boardroom drama in recent years – fermented by both internal and external pressures.
For years, some members have spoken privately about their issues with how Board is run, and in 2015 several hit out publicly at what one called the “dictatorial” approach to meetings of Provost Patrick Prendergast – whose dual role as chairperson of Board and CEO of the university irritates many.
It’s now well over a year since news broke of a working group set up as the first step in a process of change for Board – with the provost’s chairing on its radar.
But if the changes seemed like straightforwardly good news for Board members frustrated at how the body was being run, then the reality wasn’t that simple.
Board’s stormy moments have not happened in a vacuum – they’ve taken place as Trinity reckons with a government increasingly interested in what goes on behind its doors.
In the lifetime of the last Fine Gael government, it seemed legislation to allow the Department of Education a greater say in colleges’ affairs was never far from the table. With the Higher Education Authority (HEA) hungry for more legislative authority (and, ironically, more autonomy from the government), it seemed change was inevitable.
University heads fought off the first salvo 2017, prompting then-Minister for Education Richard Bruton to drop the plans after widespread debate over third-level autonomy and academic freedom. The department advised that the issue of investigative powers would be dealt with separately in the future.
But last summer the issue reared its head again, when outgoing Minister for Higher Education Mary Michell O’Connor put the issue back on the agenda with a series of reforms to give the HEA new powers to investigate universities.
For Board, members were told, the proposals could spell a radical size reduction, as well as more external members and an end to the provost’s chairmanship.
It’s a complicated timeline – and a fragmented process. While before, certain Board members had wanted to see change to the structure of Board, it seemed far less appealing when accompanied by amped-up state involvement in decision-making.
Trinity said the working group would continue to investigate the possibility of reform – in its own time, and in its own way. In the meantime, the College sought an exemption from the government reforms in order to implement the changes itself.
This week, we got our first look at what the working group wants to see happen to Board – and the telling thing is how similar many of the changes are to those recommended by the government. Trinity, it seems, is taking seriously its commitment to bring its governance into line with what the department wants. The internal and external pressures that have tugged at Board for five years are becoming intertwined.
This, unsurprisingly, has not pleased some members of Board. Many of the recommendations – more external members, new competency requirements to serve, the possibility of an end to elected membership – seemed to some to play into the government’s hands. This wasn’t the change they’d been hoping to see.
The subtext to the document reads quite clearly: Trinity is capable of overseeing the reshuffling of its own governing body – the government need not get involved.
The devil, as always, is in the detail when it comes to the proposals, and it’s hard to escape the sense that huge changes are in the offing. The working group has yet to confront the resizing of Board – a major tenet of the government’s proposals, it’s “still under discussion” – but it hovers over many suggested alterations.
With more external members, and the possibility of a smaller Board, the obvious question for students and elected staff is: what will happen to our positions? What will happen to the statutory requirement that 16 staff and 4 students – a majority of the Board – serve?
Members fear that the Board will capitalise on its capacity to cherry-pick members and thereby push out possible dissenters – the type willing to challenge a rigid administration on its decisions.
As Prof Eunan O’Halpin – the Bank of Ireland Professor of Contemporary Irish History and one of those opposing the changes – wrote in this newspaper yesterday: “This hinges on a tacit assumption that elected staff representatives are essentially grievance peddlers incapable of disinterested strategic thinking, really no better than shop stewards wearing gowns.”
The changes, according to the document, will create a more efficient Board, lighter on its feet and focused more on long-term goals.
But those opposed to it aren’t so sure. They argue it’s not worth sacrificing Board’s representative quality for a set of proposals that might not even achieve what they set out to.
For now, Board has sent the working group packing – but the group is operating with a “view to completing its mandate by the end of the academic year”, so it’s safe to say we haven’t heard the last of the issue.
With government legislative proposals humming in the ether, the battle for Board might lie in fighting for changes that improve its effectiveness while attempting to stave off those that compromise its agency.