Mincing Words: Shared Governance
Weekly, conversations about eroding shared governance on campus surface. Professors are frustrated about being left out of important decisions, like administrative searches and curriculum changes, and the fast decisions made by administrators to keep up with the rapidly changing nature of higher education often are met with faculty member resistance.
To complicate things, there is no singular definition of what shared governance is, and it varies from campus to campus. Loosely, it is used to mean equal decision-making rights among administrators, faculty members and other stakeholders, but leaders at the Association of Governing Boards think this should not be how shared governance is viewed. Instead, AGB officials told an audience during the Association of American Colleges and Universities annual meeting earlier this year that shared governance should be seen as shared responsibility for the well-being of the institution, and to take it a step further — student success.
But shared governance has to be built on a foundation of trust and a belief that all parties are working toward the same goals and are on the same side. In the current climate, these things are not guaranteed — and the over reliance on contingent faculty members, who often don’t have a voice, not only stands in the way of building trust, it also hinders faculty members’ ability to foster institutional pride and connection, other factors that would give way to a trust of leadership.
Part of this is the recent propensity of boards to appoint presidents, cabinet members and deans without a formal search process or with very short comment periods and little notice of the candidates’ campus visits. A belief that appointments are made as political favors, rather than in the best interest of the institution or its students will always be accompanied by an inherent mistrust of any decision made by those leaders.
Similarly, the propensity to bring in an increasing number of leaders from outside of the academic ranks can draw immediate distrust from faculty members who want to know “where is his/her research?” And in a digital age, when social media can quickly disseminate any message to thousands, faculty questions about candidates’ qualifications, whether warranted or not, can lead to an embarrassing situation for both the candidates and the institution, as officials at University of Massachusetts Boston learned last week when faculty member complaints shut down their search for a chancellor.
It is impractical for faculty members to expect to be included on every decision big decision; such a practice would drag out every initiative and make it difficult to serve the needs of students and react to changes in industry in real-time. But leaders should recognize the value that shared governance offers. Proposals such as the one University of Wyoming leaders recently abandoned that would have allowed administrators to change or amend policies at any board meeting with or without notice not only erode trust, but are not in the best interest of student success and the overall success of the institution.
Faculty members are often closest to students and best know what challenges they face. Not only that, but at many institutions, professors outlast administrators. As the average presidential tenure continues to decline, several reports point to the fact that faculty members are staying with their institutions well past retirement age. There are important insights about student behavior and institutional knowledge that can be gleaned from faculty members, but those people also an be resistant to change and enforcers of “the way we’ve always done things,” presenting unique challenges for new leaders hoping to innovate and change things quickly.
Regardless of the approach taken, this is a conversation about trust that must be had on all campuses and with all stakeholders at the table. Not only is shared governance an important method for representing multiple perspectives in major processes, it’s also an important recruiting tool. When state legislators made changes to the University of Wisconsin shared governance policy, faculty members were dismayed, and a few high-profile departures surrounded the announcement. Scholars had opted to take less money for a greater stake in the decision-making process and stronger tenure protections.
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