Best practice governance of top academic departments

Over the last 15-20 years academic school meetings have gone from rambling and unstructured brawls to dull “executive infomercials”. The former led to marathon meetings. The current model has led to a middle-management culture that often does not take advantage of the very valuable specialists skills of talented, highly trained (and experienced) scholars in the department. Nor does it allow for reasonable checks and balances on the powers of the executive-something that is vital for the management of any group of academics.

Our school at the ANU has adopted a system informed both by ANU’s academic board and how the world’s top economics departments operate. The following is the template that we have adopted and which has replaced the executive committee.


School Meetings

1. Members of the School Meeting are all academic staff at level B and above who are engaged equal to or greater than 50% FTE. Observer status is given to all other staff in the School.
2. School Meetings are chaired by the Speaker of the School Meeting, who is chosen by the Head of School. The Speaker is a Member of the School Meeting who is not a Professor nor a Chair of one of the Committees nor the Head of School.
3. School meetings shall be held at least twice every semester during the academic year. Additional meetings may be called by the Head of School or at the written request of twenty-five percent of the Members of the School Meeting. One-half the Membership of the School Meeting constitutes a quorum.
4. Meetings shall be conducted in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order. Minutes of the meeting and reports submitted to the Meeting shall be kept and made available to the Members.
5. The initial Agenda for regular School Meetings shall be prepared by the Speaker and circulated in written form at least five calendar days prior to the meeting. The initial Agenda includes the items 1. Apologies 2. Confirmation of Minutes of Previous Meeting 3. Reports of Head of School and the Chairs of Committees 4. Workplace Health and Safety 5. Other Business 6. Items added by the Head of School.


6. Additional items may be suggested by individual Members and, at the discretion of the Head of School, be added to the agenda for the forthcoming meeting. Alternatively, items may be placed on the agenda by written petition of twenty-five percent of the Members. All such additions to the agenda must occur at least three days prior to the meeting.
7. A simply majority of those present and those sending proxy votes and/or absentee ballots shall decide an issue arising from an item in the initial agenda or an item added at the discretion of the Head of School.
8. A majority above 60% of those present and those sending proxy votes and/or absentee ballots shall decide an issue arising from the agenda item not described in 7.
9. A majority above 70% of those present and those sending proxy votes shall decide a motion not arising from an issue on the agenda.
10. Proxies may be given from one member to another. Proxies are given in written form to the other member a copy of which must be received by the Speaker three calendar days prior to the meeting. Proxies cannot be specific to particular items on the agenda nor to a particular motion/amendment not arising from the agenda.




12 thoughts on “Best practice governance of top academic departments”

  1. Interesting. But should the Chair of the Meetings not be elected by the School? Who would keep minutes?
    Note, a typo in paragraph 7. The word “simply” should be replaced by “simple”.


  2. Hi Raja

    1) There was some thinking about how the Speaker is chosen.. But in the end the procedures of Academic Board were adopted.

    2) The Minutes are taken and kept in the usual way.


  3. These make a lot of sense although arguably monthly such meetings, while school is in session, would be better. That was the — good — practice I experienced at those institutions where I spent most of my academic career. Leads to a more inclusive and continuous discussion.


  4. Ever since Josh aired the Frijters-UQ controversy, this blog seems to have taken on a academia focus. As a professional economist, I urge you to please restore the focus of this blog to real debate on economic issues. There are too many strong economic minds in your author pool being wasted by talking about ‘teaching’ rather than ‘doing’. Thanks, Dan.


    1. Fair point Dan. But these issues are of first order importance for supporting a department that can produce the economic debate you allude to. Intellectual freedom is what it’s all about…


    2. “There are too many strong economic minds … being wasted by talking about ‘teaching’ rather than ‘doing’.” I’m sure the students will share your concern.


    3. Dan,
      The navel gazing habit on Core Economics (see the ridiculous commentary on the University of Sydney issues) goes back way before the series of blogs on survey ethics.

      But you must understand that universities are run on similar lines to those of religious organisations, amateur sporting associations, community voluntary groups –

      1. No one wants to do any real work, but everyone wants to have his/her say in how the work should be done.

      2. They have no mechanism for expelling/sacking the slackers.

      3. Their members have “high conviction” beliefs about things that are often amazingly unimportant.

      4. Their members prefer committee based decision making. The usual justification in universities is that is a defense of academic freedom. But the sad truth is that it is to hide accountability. Furthermore, if everyone is responsible then no one is responsible, so tough decisions are rarely made and the organisations drift.

      When religious organisations, sporting associations and community voluntary groups thrive, it usually because one or two strong individuals get control of the decision making process, and run the unit in a manner that somewhat approximates the way a commercial business must be managed. Universities are no different; they just have trouble finding those strong individuals.

      None of this stuff is a secret. Academics in all disciplines love to talk about this stuff. It is much more interesting than doing real work. So Dan, be patient, they will get back to economics again soon. But why Rohan thought this was interesting enough to blog is a puzzle even for me.



      1. Wow, Casey, pretty much a polemical response. I’d prefer some analysis, but…Let me reply to your points as best I can.

        I think partnerships are one of the least understood institutions out there, but they are optimal in both the private and public sectors which share certain key characteristics. The organizations you mention aren’t the military so their governance needs to be different.

        First, pretty much *all* the best economics departments in the world run as some kind of partnership model with a rotating head, period. (Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, MIT, Yale, LSE, etc) So one must first ask ones-self why we don’t adopt the governance of the best places.

        The governance our school has adopted is one way of constraining the head so that she/he does not fall into the temptation of policies that are bad for the school as a whole. This is where the partnership idea comes in: since all members invest in the school, they have a collective say in its policies. Top private-sector law firms do the same thing for similar reasons. Partnerships have constitutions to protect members organization-specific investments. Hence our rules.

        To give you an idea what we are trying to fix, note that among the problems with heads of department who have full executive powers can be the following 1) Diversion of resources to themselves (e.g. don’t teach, get others to do admin for them, divert department money to their own travel/conferences/visitors, within the system pay themselves higher salaries than the market would be willing etc); 2) Shift a department to exclusively their own field of research; 3) At the worst, bully department members, 4) etc…

        A department head who tries to do too much of this in our school simply will not succeed, because the School can veto these bad policies. Our governance is *not* aimed at preventing the head from doing her/his job: the head still sets the agenda and direction of the department, and it is hard-i.e. requires a big coalition of members-to stop their policies. Rather, our governance is aimed solely at the really bad stuff mentioned above (which I believe happens far too much in Australia). Everything else works smoothly.

        As for slackers, etc, the university has promotion policies that address this reasonably well: to be promoted you must publish, teach well and do some admin. A tenure system would work even better, but that’s another post.

        The antithesis of our model is the short-term (3-5 years) executive head model. I believe that this creates terrible incentives such as the one’s mentioned, but on top of them, such a head must “have something to show” so they can either get another position, or get re-appointed. This leads them to use their executive power to try and force short-term change for the purpose of future employment rather than for the good of the school. Further, top academics are not generally attracted to Schools governed by this model, because of dictatorship risk. You just have to hope you have a benevolent dictator; but they are rare…


      2. Rohan,
        I am sympathetic to your comments (except those in the second last paragraph, and the sentence that precedes it).

        Sadly, the comments I made above are true, and almost every academic knows they are a reasonable (if colourful) description of the problem. However, …….. you seemed to have missed the point of my comment. I was being too oblique.

        Universities, religious organisations, amateur sporting associations and community welfare groups all have the same problem. The problem is not their committee structure.

        The dysfunctional behaviour arises from the absence of effective incentive mechanisms. Prices and income matter. There is not much that can be done about poor incentive structures in religious organisations, amateur sporting bodies and community welfare groups. It is the big problem of the not-for-profit world.

        However, universities are sufficiently quasi-commercial that they can fix the incentives problem.

        Economists are the experts at telling us that prices matter. How about building proposals to fix the incentives problem? That is something that Dan and I might enjoy reading on a Core Economics blog.


      3. Hi Casey,
        Glad you are supportive of the general ideas of the post. It is based on a half dozen or so observations of departments in Australia that run well vs those that do not.

        Note that your reply was off-topic, i.e. about incentives for shirking problems with academics. My post was about governance re: constraining the head of the organization.


  5. Students like studying at Harvard. Why? Academics at Harvard are free to teach what they want to teach. Not what they are told to teach by a CEO.


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