Present but not counted: The tenuous position of academic board chairs within contemporary university governance

Year: 2012

Author: Rowlands, Julie

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


This paper draws on a larger study of Australian academic governance and Bourdieu's notions of capital and field to examine the role and place of academic board chairs within university leadership, power and authority structures.Data gathering was conducted in 2010 and involved a comparative study of three purposively different Australian university academic boards using methods including interviews with senior executives and academic board members, document analysis and direct observation of academic board meetings. Data triangulation was used to compare and contrast the data so as to identify similarities and differences and patterns of change.
The study suggests that while academic board chairs are frequently members of their universities' senior management committees, they are not perceived as part of the senior management team. Accordingly, the case study academic board chairs walked a fine line between working with management (sensible given the locus of power and necessary if they were to have any personal credibility with executives), whilst at the same time trying not to be seen by board members as having sold out to management. The reduced power and status of the academic board and the usurping of intellectual capital by academic capital or management also substantially limited the willingness of senior academic staff members to serve as chairs of academic boards. It was further perceived that chairing the academic board does not assist with an academic career but neither was it seen as a pathway to a deputy vice-chancellorship. It was, in fact, in a kind of 'no mans' land'.A Bourdieuian analysis of the data arising from this study suggests that while within the broader university field there had traditionally been an academic board subfield, management has appropriated many of the established academic board tasks for itself. In so doing, it has broken down the formerly clear-cut separation between academic governance and management resulting not only in a transfer of ownership and responsibilities but also in a loss of identify and agency for the academic board and its chair. This has had a profound impact on the role and place of the chair of the academic board within university leadership and governance structures, leaving them not only with reduced status and authority but also at risk of being in the university equivalent of purgatory-neither academic nor management, but 'other'.