Governance: John’s College Council and Why it’s So Important

By Dr James Harrison, Vice-President of the Council of St John’s College

How do we know that what we are doing is right and fulfils what others ask of us? This is particularly true for organisations, companies, charitable bodies, and university colleges. There are rules and regulations, guidelines, and examples of best practice. But it is all too easy to fool ourselves into thinking that all is well: or, equally, to avoid thinking about matters all together. And, even, on occasions, some people might deliberately set off on a path that is plain wrong.

Photo by Michael Baker

Governance is the word we use for monitoring, holding to account, confirming correct practice, and challenging where things don’t look right. It is not always easy to dig deep enough to know what is really happening beneath the surface. Recent cases of failures of governance include Kids Company, Carillion, and Patisserie Valerie (the latter just surviving after a big cash injection).

In our context, that of St John’s College, an independent college within Durham University, the duty of governance falls to the College Council – a trustee body. The Council has a wide-ranging membership to include those ex-officio (from amongst the College’s officers, staff, and the student body) and those nominated from outside for their expertise, and for knowledge of the College and of the University. These 20 or so trustees must make the health and well-being of the College their first priority. They share the ultimate responsibility for governing and directing how the College is managed and run.

Photo by Michael Baker

External Council members come with professional skills – finance, accountancy, law, buildings, HR, higher education, and business management. Many also know about the University and the Church. All members take their responsibility to the College as a whole very seriously – undergraduate, postgraduate, Cranmer, and John’s Hall alike. As such, they must put aside any ‘special pleading’ for one particular element of College life (although many bring a deep understanding which informs the discussions). In this way, together, the Council keeps a close watch on finances, buildings, and student welfare and experience, as well as monitoring issues such as safety for students and staff, and sustaining the added value of being at St John’s. It must set the College’s strategy and see that it is implemented fully.

It is a great privilege to be a member of the Council, a body which works well together, unafraid to challenge whilst seeking the very best for the College, now and in the future.

A full list of members of the Council can be found at

Dr Jamie Harrison is Vice-President of the Council of St John’s College, and sits on both its Audit Committee and Cranmer Committee (sub-committees of the Council).

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