Provosts and Presidents

Over the past week I have been reading the book by William Watts, A Memoir, which is the first autobiography by any Provost of Trinity College Dublin. Bill Watts led the College between 1981 and 1991, and for much of that time I was myself a rather bolshy junior lecturer there. The book describes his life and his tenure of the office of Provost, and it contains some interesting observations about the nature of university life and decision-making.

However, one of the curiosities of the book is that nowhere does Watts explain what the role of the Provost really is. The closest we get is in a passage under the heading ‘The Routine of Administration’, in which he writes as follows:

‘As Provost I was Chairman of the Board, the Council, the Site Development Committee, the Senior and Junior Promotions Committees and many others too numerous or ephemeral to mention. Decidedly the Provost is both by Statute and custom the College’s Chief executive. The buck stops with him and responsibilities are potentially heavy if things go wrong.’ (p. 101)

It is clear that Watts saw the main substance of his office to be in the chairing of committees, and he explains further that he saw it as his key objective to secure decisions on these by consensus. It is, I should add, the strong view of many associated with Trinity during this period that he performed this role very well, and the College experienced significant growth and development. Nevertheless, I suspect that not many current university heads in Ireland would quite describe their role in this way. In my own case, the mere thought of all those committees makes me wince; I am happy to say I chair only two, though I do attend some others when I can.

On the other hand, Bill Watts was Provost of Trinity before the Universities Act 1997 came into force. This statute provides in section 24 for a ‘chief officer’ (to be called ‘President’ or ‘Provost’ or such other title as the institution may choose), and Schedule 4 of the Act states:

‘The chief officer of a university shall, subject to this Act, manage and direct the university in its academic, administrative, financial, personnel and other activities and for those purposes has such powers as are necessary or expedient.’

There is in this, and other provisions of the Act, an understanding that the President has significant executive functions. Indeed the fairly wide definition of his or her powers in Schedule 4 has led some to argue that the Act runs counter to the traditional understanding of collegiate decision-making. One regular critic of the system, and indeed of the policies of a number of the current university heads, is Sean Barrett of Trinity College, who in 2007 wrote in a TCD student newspaper:

‘The heads contribute nothing to the academic success of Irish universities and their students. It is an appalling period in Irish universities. Those responsible are the heads.’

He, and others, have complained of growing ‘managerialism’ and centralisation of power through restructuring.

On the other hand, some external stakeholders of the university sector have suggested that reform and modernisation, initiated and supported by strong leadership, was an urgent necessity. Successive Ministers for Education have pushed this agenda.

Ultimately what is at issue here is probably not so much the function, power and role of university Presidents, but rather an understanding of what is expected of universities in these changing times and how the traditional academic ethos and culture should adapt. Universities are complex organisations that tend to work effectively only when space is given to collegiality and goodwill. On the other hand, traditional decision-making by a series of committees (as I have observed in a recent post) may no longer be responsive enough, so that the idea of the university head as a chairperson seeking consensus is unlikely to allow the institution to compete effectively in a high pressure environment. The trick is to provide decisive leadership while maintaining confidence and buy-in; a thoroughly difficult task, on the whole I believe more difficult than that facing most corporate CEOs.

The arguments and debates about structures and processes in universities during the current decade have revealed the faultlines in the system, and have perhaps been made more difficult by the absence of any forum in which a better understanding could be reached – and if possible shared – about how higher education institutions should be run. On the whole, I believe that the Irish universities are stronger and more agile than they were ten years ago; but they are also more tense and volatile places than they were. The reform processes, which I believe were necessary, probably still require a final phase in which a better understanding is reached of what in this new millennium constitutes a functionally effective, intellectually coherent and ethically sound higher education institution.

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