Hey University Boards – It’s time to get excited about (or at least focused on) your university’s policy framework

As this blog is being written while I’m on a flight, I’ll use the following analogy: In this analogy, I am travelling on an independent airline and they have only one plane.  The pilot has the authority to fly and is accountable for the plane – making sure it has a destination and gets to where it is going in compliance with all laws.  Let’s pretend the cockpit door is closed and there’s no communication with the flight attendant.  The flight attendant is responsible for taking care of the passengers but there are no policies to guide him.  The pilot is sitting there with all the authority, but the flight attendant can’t talk to her.  Instead, he makes up a new policy on the spot – he can decide who to serve and who not to serve.   No one has told the flight attendant what authority he has.  He serves the tea and coffee but decides that he doesn’t like the people in row 13 and refuses to serve them at all. He decides to make the coffee hotter because it tastes better and there’s no policy to guide him on his safety obligations.  He also decides that it’s okay for passengers not to have their seatbelts on if they don’t want them.

What is a policy framework?

Otherwise sometimes known as a ‘policy on policies’, a policy framework is a description of how authority and accountability flows down into and through your university.  In the example above, a policy framework would ensure that the flight attendant has the guidance he needs on all aspects of service and safety and would clarify what decisions the flight attendant could and could not make, including that he cannot make new policies.  A policy framework describes who has the authority to make new policies and who is responsible to enforce them.

Where does it fit?

Your university is created by an act or a charter.  Once created, the university is a legal person with rights and obligations under the law.  The board is responsible to govern this legal person.  The university’s act or charter is the source of all authority within the university and generally gives the board all the authority it needs to lead and oversee the university.  The act or charter may also delegate authority to others including the senate, the chancellor, and the president.  Bylaws serve to put more meat on the legislative bones by fleshing out or further specifying aspects of the act or charter.  In this chain, committee terms of reference and policies are next in line.  Terms of reference delegate authority to specific committees to do further work and perform specific functions. Policies are documents in which the authority and accountability is further delegated.  The policy framework governs this further delegation of authority and accountability.  By-laws, policies, and terms of reference must flow from and be consistent with the original source of authority – the legislation or charter.  Of course, all of these instruments must also be consistent with the university’s legal obligations.

What questions does a policy framework answer?

A policy framework answers the following questions among others:

  1. Who can develop and approve new policies? Specifically, which policies does the board have to approve? Which policies can the academic governing body approve? Which policies can the president approve? Are there local policies that deans, chairs, or unit leaders can approve?
  2. What kinds of policy instruments exist? There are generally policies, procedures, guidelines and terms of reference. A policy framework defines what types of policies there are (board, senate/academic, legal, compliance, or administrative are some examples) and what makes up a policy versus a procedure versus a guideline.
  3. What form should policy instruments take? A policy framework preferably establishes consistent templates for the university’s policy instruments and works toward consistent use of definitions and language across policy instruments.
  4. Who decides what policy instruments are needed?
  5. What controls are in place to ensure that it is clear which is the official approved policy of the university? Who is responsible to ensure policies don’t conflict with or contradict each other?
  6. Consultation processes – in keeping with collegialism and in recognition of the complex stakeholder environment within which universities operate, a policy framework should answer the question of how policy instruments are developed. Who is consulted? Who must recommend a policy before it is finally approved?

Why is a policy framework necessary?

Policies are very important compliance tools as they set out not just a commitment to compliance with the law but also assign authority and responsibility within the university for that compliance – policies tell stakeholders how the university will meet its compliance obligations.   However, policies are not just about compliance.  Policies tell stakeholders if a university has a position on certain issues and how it will address those issues. In this aspect, policies represent an opportunity to implement and extend the university’s vision, mission, values and even strategy.  On the governance side of things, without a policy framework, there is likely to be some degree of inefficiency and ineffectiveness within the university.  For example, if the board doesn’t have a policy on the appointment or renewal of the president, the institution is left to recreate what happened previously, often spending unnecessary time, resources and political capital arguing with stakeholders about issues such as who is to be on the committee and how they should be appointed.

Without a policy framework, neither the board or senate can be assured that authority is being properly delegated and exercised.  In a university, where authority is dispersed, this can and does lead to different approaches to all sorts of matters within different faculties, departments, and units where employees, like the flight attendant above, are called upon to exercise their judgment and develop their own approaches to doing so.  As in the analogy above, the decision to serve extra hot coffee could go very wrong and if it does it’s not the flight attendant that wears the reputational risk, it’s the board and the institution. Someone will rightly say that there should have been a policy and that the flight attendant should have been trained on the policy.

What’s the board’s role in policy approval?

The board has a key role in university policy.  As a starter, it should ensure that there is a policy framework within which the university (with the board’s approval) sets out its own taxonomy of policy instruments.  Within the policy framework, it should be clear which policies address the board’s own activities, as well as the legal, compliance and governance obligations of the institution and the board should approve those.  The board should be the approval authority for any policy that has a public policy, reputational or multi-stakeholder implications. Senate should oversee academic policies consistently with its authority in the university’s governance framework.  The president should oversee administrative policies.  Local departments should have authority over polices that are unique to and only affect them.

The board should oversee all this activity by way of an annual report from the executive with responsibility for the policy framework attesting to compliance with the framework and reporting on the new policies developed, which policies were updated policies or reviewed, as well as policies under development and planned.  More regular reporting can be assigned to board committees – for example, human resources policies can be assigned to the board committee with responsibility for human resources, and compliance policies to the board committee with responsibility for compliance.  A former board chair with whom I worked understood the importance of policy oversight and was interested in how the organization characterized policies as he wanted to ensure that any policies not approved by the board were appropriately categorized – in other words that the delegation of authority was appropriate. He was also interested in ensuring that policies that were passed were necessary, and that they weren’t overly bureaucratic or unnecessarily creating work.   Communication and training initiatives as well as any issues with resourcing or non-compliance should also be reported to the board.

The board has a lot of value to bring in overseeing an effective policy framework. While you may not see it as exciting, I encourage boards not to think of policy work as routine or not worthy of attention. A sound policy framework is a key tool in the board’s toolbox – it is one way in which a board demonstrates diligence and care.