Shared Governance At America’s Universities: Reaffirming Higher Education’s Cornerstone In The Post-Pandemic Era

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Shared governance is a cornerstone of American higher education. In fact, faculty shared governance been called the second longest standing system of institutional shared governance in the world, second only to the Church. Strictly accurate or not, it makes the point. Shared governance in our nation’s colleges and universities has been around for more than a century. Principles of shared governance and best practices for ensuring the faculty had voice in university policymaking were articulated as early as 1920, when the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) published its first statement on shared governance between faculty, administrators, and trustees.

In their 2015 book, “Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education,” W.G. Bowen and E.M. Tobin provided a candid, accurate, and at times challenging assessment of faculty shared governance. The authors asked two important questions: (1) does higher education have what it takes to reform effectively from within, and (2) are the issues facing higher ed today exacerbated by a century-old system of governance that desperately requires change? Bowen and Tobin also point out that much work (and even more attention/scrutiny) has focused on the role of boards and presidents, while far less has looked at the role and place of faculty within the governance system. The authors conclude that the both concept and the execution of faculty shared governance need to be “sharpened and redefined” and that the consequences of failing to do so are “more than the nation can afford.” Since the start of the pandemic in 2020, and in the years that have followed, both the urgency for reform – and the consequences of failing to do so – have become much greater.

As someone who has spent more than three decades at universities, in faculty roles as well as academic leadership and senior administrative roles, I can make two statements without reservation: (1) faculty shared governance is a discriminating feature of US higher education that makes it unique and contributes to its reputation as the best system of higher education in the world, and (2) faculty shared governance has, largely and over history, worked and worked well.

But saying faculty shared governance works perfectly and is without its flaws and failures is like saying the same of democracy. Neither system is perfect, but perhaps both are better than the alternatives. The alternative to democracy is autocracy if elected, or dictatorship if not. The alternative to faculty shared governance, at least from a faculty perspective, is something akin to autocracy or even dictatorship: a top-down style of leadership/decision/directives with little or no option for input by those working within the organization. This may be more similar to how some private companies are run, or at least have been run historically. There has, of course, been a recent trend toward more inclusive management and leadership styles in the private sector which, while rarely giving any real decision-making or veto authority to employees, at least recognizes the value and the importance of hearing from and listening to them.

Has faculty shared governance at US higher educational institutions evolved or otherwise changed over the last century? Yes, though perhaps not universally recognized or in the ways one might expect. As with any institutional system there are core principles and intractable features associated with intransient (intransigent?) or immutable values. But as with any system that has endured as long, there are also reforms that respond to and endeavor to accommodate changes in times, many of them externally driven, such as changes in demographics. Faculty shared governance principles have remained intact, but their interpretation has taken on additional, often expanded dimensions. Yet while the scope appears to have expanded, as has the case (if not urgency) for activating the incredible intellectual assets of a university in visioning as well as strategic decision making, working together with the institution’s administration to address significant challenges in ways that are both responsible and sustainable, many faculty would argue (and do) that shared governance has, in actuality, been eroding over the last 50 years, and some point to an acceleration of this erosion in the post-pandemic era. There certainly have been highly publicized cases that support this. This incongruity (expanded scope, diminished role), whether real or perceived, is both the result of and at the core of many of the challenges colleges and universities are facing today. Without a change in the governance dynamic, the friction and the gap will grow. Needed changes will be harder for institutions to realize. Stagnation will give way to stalemate.

But this can also be viewed as the perfect time for a reaffirmation of shared governance, a reactivation of this unique and powerful model for accessing intellectual resources, and a reframing of shared commitments to institutional progress and sustainability.

Before offering one possible roadmap, let’s look at how we arrived at where we are today.

Faculty shared governance in colleges and universities was originally intended to vest in the faculty oversight and responsibility for all academic matters, making clear that administrations, government, or even the Church could not unreasonably interfere with or otherwise influence academic matters such as curricula, degree programs, instructional policies, academic calendar, and the conferring of degrees. This evolved, quite sensibly, to further affirm that the faculty had a primary (though not necessarily final) decision-making role in faculty appointment, reappointment, promotion, and (where applicable) tenure.

Recent decades have witnessed levels of internal and external activism that have affected, and indeed often expanded, the scope of faculty shared governance. Protests, walkouts, the unionization of faculty and graduate students, growth in the number of faculty unions, and increased public scrutiny of leaders and the institutions they lead (with the threat of no-confidence votes) have put pressures that were not likely imagined when original governance documents and practices were established. For that reason, the scope/types of decisions – and what counts as an ‘academic’ decision – have grown and decision-making authority has become more ambiguous, ranging from questions of administrative vs. faculty salaries to the ways resources are being in invested in faculty vs. capital construction. Perhaps not strategically or even with a lot of careful reflection and thought about impacts, indeed sometimes to avoid undue or unwanted conflict or ‘bad publicity,’ taking the path of least resistance and avoiding unwanted backlash or ‘fallout’ may have seemed to be the best option. This last term was not selected unintentionally. In extreme cases, what shared governance has evolved into, or been allowed to become, has in effect provided faculty with a ‘nuclear option’ they never had previously. Besides delaying or even impeding needed reforms, this creates an unhealthy ‘cancel culture’ that serves no one, least of all students.

Today, it is not uncommon to see shared governance units (involving faculty most often, but staff and students also) given explicit roles in the recruitment of university leaders – not only department chairs and deans, positions with direct and obvious connection to the academic mission, but also to vice presidents, chief financial officers, athletic directors, and more. It is not uncommon to see faculty shared governance units expecting to have a voice in all financial decisions (not just those directly impacting academic mission), investment decisions, and capital project decisions (academic or otherwise).

Imagine a large corporation being run this way. How can every employee be expected to understand or be knowledgeable in what it takes to stay competitive, to stay ahead of the competition, to ensure R&D and marketing investments are maximized and implemented in a strategic and timely fashion, to invest and disinvest strategically and responsibly to achieve against multiple and shifting priorities and objectives, to respond to stakeholders, to ensure compliance with all federal regulations, and to manage a complex portfolio of talents and treasures, all while protecting brand and value? They can’t and they don’t.

True, universities are not corporations. They are a different type of organization with a different type of mission. And while profit is not their aim, that does not mean that they can be financially inattentive or irresponsible. (Similarly, a for-profit corporation that reports those profits to both a board and shareholders does not focus solely on profit at the expense of social responsibility.) Colleges and universities were putting people ahead of profit before it was fashionable. However, they can still learn from other types of organizations and institutions, well beyond the “revenues must match expenses” argument many administrators have tried (and failed) to make to their faculty colleagues, and no longer the “we must run the university like a business, for it is one” argument many trustees and legislators have made (similarly unsuccessfully). There should be a recognition that companies themselves have moved closer to what universities are: mission-driven, people-focused, balancing financial and social good priorities, and committed to being more inclusive, equitable, and just. Perhaps they are not so different after all. Perhaps there are opportunities to learn, share best practices, and even work together toward shared goals.

Surely universities can create a business model that supports and resources the objectives of teaching and learning, serving the public good, advancing discovery, and serving communities. But there remain some big questions that must be part of any discussion reaffirming shared governance, each deserving of deeper and more reflective study. Why is it difficult for faculty acknowledge there are professionals who are trained, prepared, committed, and ready to provide leadership, and who can be trusted to do so in the best interest of the university? Why fall back on a system that dilutes and distributes decision-making so far and wide that few are qualified by training or expertise to make the best decisions? And where do we land instead?

Often the answer is (again) the path of least resistance, the option that aggravates the fewest though almost certainly achieves the least, or the dreaded ‘no change’ option. It is the latter that has plagued colleges and universities for decades, creating intransigence and stagnation, leading to failed presidential searches/appointments/tenures, and fueling to the increased marginalization and public criticism around relevance and value of higher education that we see today. College and universities are seen as out of touch and out of step with the rest of the world. They have stagnated, eschewed the kinds of change that would make a difference for our students or our institutions’ futures, and moved too slowly to accommodate trends, opportunities, and needs that would ensure students success, institutional innovation, or the advancement of research. Or so the narrative goes.

Faculty shared governance is a defining, value-added, and essential element to US higher education. It is the right thing for the right reasons. But it has, at times, devolved into a cumbersome, obstructionist, sometimes combative, and often ineffective model for making strategic and timely decisions in the best interest of the institutions and the students they serve.

What’s needed is not a challenge to faculty shared governance or a wholesale change, but a modest and moderated (agreed upon) set of reforms, and a willingness to reflect regularly and seriously about each institutions’ policies and practices around it. The suggestions below represent both a return to the fundamental charges of faculty shared governance and a new level of understanding, trust, confidence, and respect between faculty and administration. First and foremost, both parties must start by assuming positive intent, leading with trust. Afterall, both groups want the same things: a healthy, successful institution and an environment that promotes and respects teaching, scholarship, innovation, and discovery.

Five suggestions for universities and boards committed to such reaffirmation:

  1. Administrative and faculty shared governance leaders should commit publicly and regularly to shared objectives for the success, health, and sustainability of the institution. This affirmation of shared objectives should be accompanied by a documented commitment to working together in a manner that is strategic, responsible, timely, and in the best interest of the institution to achieve shared goals.
  2. Review any (e.g., board) authorizations of the shared governance unit, roles, responsibilities, and expectations. This includes key documents like bylaws or the faculty handbook. In many cases, it is the governing board of the institution that authorizes the governance group to assume such responsibilities in its charter or other documentation.
  3. Reaffirm, reestablish, or come to understanding (that can be documented) roles and responsibilities of faculty shared governance unit as well as those of the administration and/or board. For which matters does faculty shared governance hold oversight responsibility and decision-making authority? For which matters is faculty shared governance advisory to the central administration (president, provost, or other)? And which matters are solely the responsibility of the administration?
  4. Create and commit to a system of regular briefings between the administration and the faculty shared governance unit, similar to those existing at most institutions between the administration and the institution’s governing board.
  5. Meet annually to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of the relationship between the administration and faculty shared governance. Commit to continual improvement or both. Celebrate and affirm successes publicly.

A gentle shift from accepted definitions/functionality of ‘shared’ governance, where the implied understanding or expectation (at the extreme) is that decision-making authority on all matters actually is shared by all parties, to a model of ‘joint’ governance where parties assume primary (or even sole) responsibility for select aspects of the institution and truly joint responsibility for others, may be all that is needed. Think of this as a re-articulation and reaffirmation or both authorized and assumed responsibilities. This gentle shift could benefit institutions, their students, faculty, and staff, and better enable them to function efficiently and effectively, working toward and achieve shared goals. This, in turn, will help to ensure that US colleges and universities remain the best in the world, are the best positioned to respond to increasing demands and new challenges, and able to best focus their expertise, capabilities, facilities, personnel, and resources (a.k.a., time, talent, and treasure) on achieving their strategic goals and fulfilling their noble mission.

Universities have a wonderful opportunity to reaffirm models of shared governance at a time such systems are needed most, models built upon mutual trust and mutual respect, with mutual understanding of roles and responsibilities, and mutual commitment to achieving shared goals. As Bowen and Tobin cautioned, and the pandemic has made more clear and more urgent, the consequences of not reforming faculty shared university governance (thereby enabling higher ed institutions to respond and adapt to new challenges and new circumstances in a way that is both strategic and timely, and both responsible and sustainable) may indeed be more than the nation can afford.

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