I am a relatively new Trustee for the BSA having joined the Board in June 2020. Trustees fulfil a statutory governance role in line with charity law and also take on specific roles within one or more of the Board sub-groups (Governance, Membership, Publications). Given my past role editing Sociology (with Graham Crow), I volunteered to be a Publications Director. Joining the Board in the pandemic meant the meetings were online and there were more than the ‘usual’ three publications meetings a year in addition to Board meetings. There were additional issues, such as revisiting the Strategic Plan and operational budgets agreed pre-pandemic, managing BSA office staffing during the pandemic, responding to political events that required collective email input and decision-making in between.
Typically, the November meeting of the Board would be face-to-face, however, this year the meeting was from 10am-4pm on Zoom. The agenda provides an opportunity to reflect on achievements and challenges and make plans for the year ahead.
We began with a short update from our investment company, Ruffer, about their management of BSA assets. There are various charity rules about having sufficient funds in reserve in the event that a charity has to wind up, making these investments important, but they also underpin the activities the BSA is able to undertake each year. The update provided welcome news that Ruffer had delivered positive returns on our investments despite a shaky financial year. It was also refreshing to learn about the ways Ruffer has been pushing on responsible and sustainable investment, which includes influencing policy (for example FCA on sustainable practices) and companies (for example voting for more diverse Board composition) as well as seeing how well the investments have fared.
Next, we spent 90 minutes reviewing the BSA risk register. This is where the weight of the responsibilities of being a trustee is felt. We examined significant challenges for the BSA in the future. These include threats to the Association, notably the impact of open access and Plan S on publishing and the ways this will affect our income. The discussion branched out to include other threats to sociology and sociologists, ranging from political and legislative changes (freedom of speech, comprehensive spending review, and possible future changes to student fees) to how the discipline is portrayed in social media.
Our lunchbreak was inevitably filled with other phone calls and meetings before returning to the main agenda for the afternoon which included a review of previous meetings. A lively discussion ensued about a recent, well-attended Advisory Forum meeting and how we can better engage with BSA members. We also spent some time planning for future annual conferences and this led to soul searching about whether to return to face to face meetings. Once again we summoned the spirit of Greta Thunberg and asked what the responsible decision was bearing in mind the carbon footprint of face to face meetings. In a brief exercise of democracy, we voted on future conference themes (having of course discussed the sociological merits and demerits of different words).
Trustees leading on particular work streams (Membership, Sociology in Schools, Equality and diversity, and Climate emergency) reported back on these strategic priorities. A highlight for me was the welcome opportunity to learn more about the work the BSA does in Schools and FE colleges to support and champion the teaching of sociology (there’s a lot going on). We also took time to review membership, organisational and staffing matters before the meeting closed.
As I hope this shows, the matters that come to the Trustees are wide and varied. As might be expected, there are some differences of opinion about sociological semantics, marshalling of evidence and each Trustee brings different experiences and expertise to our discussions. The agenda and sense of responsibility to ensure the BSA delivers on its ‘objectives’ and the funds derived from membership fees, publishing and return on our investments are properly and wisely spent can be intense. The weight of responsibility on Trustees is often leavened by the lively conversations, much learning and the chance to work with fabulous colleagues, fellow Trustees and the dedicated staff of the BSA. We continue to reflect on the composition and diversity of our Trustee Board, and all the trustees are happy to talk informally to members interested in a BSA Trustee role in future (and maybe I will see you at a future Board meeting).
Catherine Pope is a BSA Trustee and Publications Director.