Diversity in University governance

Professor Helen Swift

With University committees and boards currently seeking nominations in the termly elections process, Helen Swift, Professor of Medieval French Studies, Fellow of St Hilda’s, former Assessor (2020–21) and now Academic Lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in the Humanities Division, talks about her involvement in University governance and the importance of diversity in University decision making.

How did you become involved in University governance?

Initially via roles in my college (as Tutor for Graduates) and faculty (as Director of Undergraduate Studies), which gave me insight into both the richness and the complexity of what ‘the collegiate University’ means organisationally. Later, as Assessor, I was plunged into over a hundred committees, which opened up what one Proctor predecessor aptly called ‘the whole pipework of the University’.

What have you found most rewarding about being involved in the University’s governance?

Three things, really: understanding far better how I, in my local college and faculty contexts, fit into the whole institutional ecosystem, and how to navigate its pathways better; using my privilege as a member of Congregation to question, to challenge, and to bring about change; and working with extraordinary colleagues from very different parts of the University whom I otherwise might never have met.

“Your voice needs to be heard; the University can’t be about you without you.”

What have you found most challenging?

Initially, it felt like there was an overwhelming amount of knowledge to acquire before I could even think about intervening and having a persuasive voice, but then I realised that what I myself was bringing to the table was itself valuable knowledge – not necessarily represented by others – as a distinctive and needed voice.

Why do you see increasing diversity on University committees and other bodies as important?

Ensuring more diverse occupation of seats at key decision-making tables is essential for driving cultural change towards a more equitable and inclusive institution. It should be powerfully transformative for the University lives of those whose interests have been less directly represented hitherto, and also for the institution itself, yielding more effective and truly representative governance.

How would you encourage people who might be thinking about becoming involved in University governance, either by standing for election or volunteering to serve on a committee/working group, to go for it?

Your voice needs to be heard; the University can’t be about you without you. Give me a call! Quite seriously, I think anyone who has been involved before would be very willing to offer allyship through that process. And it’s important to get assurance in your local context that you’ll be supported to serve, as regards the commitment of time and energies.


Where can I find out more about the University’s governance?

Information is available on the University’s website at https://governance.admin.ox.ac.uk/governance.

Where can I find out what elected vacancies are currently available?

Current elections and eligibility requirements are published on the Elections website at https://governance.admin.ox.ac.uk/current-elections.

What if I’m not eligible to stand for any of the current elected vacancies?

There are lots of other ways you can get involved in the University’s governance at a divisional and departmental level. Let your head of division or head of department know that you are interested in becoming a member of a committee, especially if you have an interest in the remit covered by a particular committee. Alternatively, look at the list of University committees and contact committee secretaries directly to ask about current and forthcoming opportunities.