The idea of shared governance means different things on different campuses. Like the free speech conversation, much of the contemporary conversation around shared governance is taken in absolutes, manipulated to reflect the idea that all stakeholders at an institution should have an equal stake in all decisions regarding a campus.
But a recent survey from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) found that campus leaders view shared governance as equal decision-making rights between leadership, faculty and other stakeholders — and the association doesn’t think it should be.
Instead, said AGB Director of Special Projects Andy Lounder during a panel at the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting in Washington D.C. this week, a majority of leaders see shared governance more as an equal distribution between consultation, rules of engagement and a system of aligning priorities, with an aspirational emphasis on aligning priorities. Practically, what shared governance really boils down to is “shared responsibility for the welfare of the institution,” said Susan Johnston, executive vice president and chief operating officer of AGB.
However, said Grinnell College President Raynard Kington, “I’ve seen [a move] into sort of a hunker-down mode where every single interaction, every single decision is seen in isolation.”
Hard to change culture
Traditionally, Kington said, shared governance on campus was based on a system of “relationships guiding interactions of shared governance toward a transactional model, where every single thing becomes [political] so it moves away from this relationship that every decision is put in the context of the whole and multiple decisions” together into a situation where everyone is trying to win at each turn and best everyone else to score points.
“This is largely determined by culture, and culture’s a hard thing to change and to establish,” he said, adding that the current trend of “shortened tenures of presidents isn’t helping matters, because it takes years to develop these relationships.”
Not only that, but in the culture of every man for himself and individual wins, “there is a tiny little slice of every single constituency that’s not going to be nice, that’s going to send you really mean emails and say really mean things,” and though they’re just a fraction of the overall stakeholder population as a whole, Kington said he’s “seen over and over how that handful can distort the whole convo and sort of recognize that often because, and this is a reflection of the world we live in, people feel authorized to say and do a number of things [via email or social media] that they’d never say to your face.”
Kenna Colley, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at Radford University, jokingly said her New Jersey upbringing reared her to address those individuals head-on and have a conversation before things get out of hand.
“I’m from New Jersey, and we go face to face about everything,” she said. “There’s food in front of us, but you go, and you argue it out, you break bread together, and then you agree to agree or agree to disagree and then you go have a beer together.”
“I think we have to take those skills, those processes, and make sure we’re super intentional, very transparent that we’re doing things in terms of a daily practice,” she said, adding the importance of facilitating an environment that emphasizes the need to “respect everyone’s background and perspective and expertise.”
And of course, said Kington, “Learning how not to respond is a huge part of shared governance.”
“Those [minority] voices have distorted a conversation in a way that has given them far more power than they deserve, or have even,” he said.
It can also be challenging to discern “who makes the final decision” in some cases, Kington said. Often he’s heard “ ‘the committee decided’ ” to do a certain thing. “Committees don’t decide squat," he said. "You can’t hold a committee accountable.”
“I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding, and I think the biggest challenge for us as institutions is about allocation of resources,” Kington added.
Collaborative vs. serial governance
Still, despite challenges with establishing hierarchies and roles in some cases, most agree that shared governance is really “an asset for institutions as they embrace the future,” said Johnston. “When shared governance works as it should, it ensures that students are able to take advantage of and benefit from a liberal education and that student success is supported across the institution.”
However, while there is value in a collaborative model of shared governance, some say the current “serial” model — in which one committee comes to a consensus and communicates it to the next level, which deliberates the idea at the next meeting, then sends it up to the next level to repeat the cycle — is an impediment, rather than a benefit to innovation in higher ed.
For instance, after the faculty senate president at Drake University gave a presentation to the board about the changes to the school’s general education curriculum, which was just completed after a year and a half, the board chair turned to then-president David Maxwell and asked why it had taken that long to complete. The answer, which Maxwell said “was the stupidest thing” he’d ever said to the chair, was because the faculty senate only meets once a month.
In this instance, as in many others in the industry, leaders get bound by traditions, in this case traditional meeting schedules, and it gets in the way of “flexibility, agility and responsiveness — which are terms that are not easily applied to decision-making in higher ed, traditionally,” said Maxwell, who now serves as a senior fellow at AGB and president emeritus at Drake.
Particularly in instances involving decisions about programs, Kington said the need to consult everyone for feedback can hamper progress for the institution. When it comes down to deciding just how few students is too few to continue a program, where people’s passions are involved, shared governance proves to be not up to the task, said Kington. “If anything, it is a process that discourages decision-making, because of its speed, but also because of the nature of the beast.”
Shared governance strategy still useful
But ultimately, everyone agrees shared governance on campus, as a priority alignment strategy, is useful.
“I’m committed to shared governance, I understand its importance, but it takes too long; we cannot afford to take that long in making critical decisions,” he said. “At the same time, recognizing that the way we have historically made decisions … has given us the opportunity to be reflective, thoughtful … there are advantages to that slow, deliberative process.”
“I think it’s that backward planning, what do you want to do, what’s the backward design? Just like we do with student learning outcomes,” said Colley of how shared governance should be approached.
Kington said appointing a faculty member as a non-voting member of every board committee has “been useful, I think. It’s not a panacea, but it at least means that one faculty member is on each of those committees hearing how the board is governing” and can communicate back to the other faculty members, even if they can’t get into specifics, that the leadership is acting in good faith to move the institution forward.
Maxwell agreed, saying having a student representative as well as a faculty representative present, even though they don’t get a vote, is important, because their voices are at the table. He noted that the issues that institutions and their boards are facing don't fall into the neatly defined buckets of board committees, emphasizing the importance of checking in with all campus stakeholders “at regular intervals” — and before a crisis hits — to ask “how are we doing in decision-making.”
“It clearly boils down to really extensive communication,” said Colley. “The more we share facts and really real facts and true facts with our faculty, that really helps because there’s a lot of misinformation out there.”
“I think the other piece is that people think that equal means the same, and it’s not true. We can’t do the same things for everybody across the entire campus, and we have to explain why,” she said. “Whether its based on disciplines or the size of their departments or budgets … we try to get everyone’s needs met, but it’s not going to happen in the same way … and some people may disagree with me on that, but it isn’t the same, and it’s never going to be the same.”
And that extends, not only to the faculty, but to students, staff and contingent faculty, said Kington, because “most of those decisions are going to have to be carried out by those individuals, so you really want to have buy-in.”