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Sharing Governance

March 16, 2012

CHICAGO -- “Icy” could often be used to describe the relationship between college governing boards and the institutions’ faculties, and the term might accurately have been applied to a retreat here in January of Augustana College trustees and faculty members, though perhaps not for the same reasons.

Snow the day before complicated the drive into the city from the college’s campus in Rock Island, Ill., and hundreds of flights into the city were delayed.

But once everybody got to the University Club, where the two-day retreat was held, the interactions were warm. Faculty members and trustees, some of whom had met at previous meetings, greeted each other like old friends, and the two groups set off addressing some of the college’s biggest challenges in tandem.

As highlighted by January’s meeting, Augustana’s administration has worked for several years to bring faculty members and trustees together in informal and formal settings to help dispel each group's stereotypes about the other, ease the flow of ideas, and get everyone on the same page about significant challenges the university will face in the next decade.

Faculty members across higher education regularly say they see their influence waning, while governing board members, who professors often view as businessmen unfamiliar with academic issues, exert more control over institutions. Augustana's efforts demonstrate a way to give faculty members voice in the direction their institution takes, even if they do not have formal authority.

That the college had to take such steps underscores the perceived distance between the two groups -- which on many campuses can range from a crack to a chasm -- and the misunderstandings that often result. But the discussions that took place at the retreat show how little distance actually lies between the two camps, how open they can be to listening to each other, and how easy it can be to generate consensus on several large questions of institutional direction just by getting them in the same room.

Whose University Is It?

In the Middle Ages, when universities were first founded, faculty groups were universities' governing boards, but that model has been supplanted by one in which independent boards -- often composed of alumni, business leaders, and professionals -- have final formal authority in their capacity as stewards of the institution.

Despite this authority, boards used to tend defer to the faculty on academic issues, such as curriculum development, the creation of degree programs, research direction, and classroom instruction.

There were several reasons for this. For one, board members generally do not have the academic expertise to delve into such questions. For another, most universities have a unique employment structure, and faculty members are not traditional employees who can be removed if they disagree with the direction management takes. “Because of academic freedom, boards and presidents do not unilaterally decide all matters germane to the mission of the university,” said Rodney A. Smolla, president of Furman University and a scholar of free expression and shared governance in higher education. There is little incentive for tenured faculty members to go along with a plan they do not support, so major decisions have to be consultative if they are to be effective, he said.

“In a well-functioning university, boards generously delegate and share authority with faculty and administrators,” Smolla said. “And when there are basic issues involving institutional identity, social policy, or the direction of the university, it is very healthy not to fall back on hard legal lines, hard lines of authority, and to be creative and solve problems in more informal settings where faculty and trustees are relaxed and free to express ideas.”

But this traditional relationship has changed somewhat in recent years, and many say that boards and administrators are making more decisions without faculty input. “More and more there’s the expectation that decision-making will be kept to those in positions of formal authority, and it comes from a lack of understanding of traditions of faculty governance,” said Robert Kreiser, associate secretary for the American Association of University Professors' department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance.

The AAUP’s Statement on Governance says that “[t]he faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” Kreiser said faculty members should also be consulted on most issues, even if they don’t relate directly to the academic mission, since that mission may still be affected.

Among other things, Kreiser attributes the lessening of faculty influence to the increased prevalence of senior administrators who did not come up through the faculty ranks. "When you have chief administrative officers and boards coming from nonacademic backgrounds, they tend to do what comes naturally, which is to make decisions without sharing with faculty until major decisions are already made,” he said.

Other higher education observers point to the fact that, with all of the challenges currently facing higher education, college administrations need to move quickly or face existential crises. A deliberation with faculty members can take time.

Still others point to faculty members’ own abdication of responsibility. They have taken on larger and larger academic responsibilities, they say, and many would prefer to leave administration to others -- that is, until it impinges on their work.

The result of putting distance between faculty members and those responsible for governing is that, over time, the governing body and those who are governed begin to forget where the other side comes from, observers say. “One of the issues we faced at Augustana was, if you polled faculty about the five biggest issues the institution faced, it would be different than if we surveyed the board,” said Steven C. Bahls, president of Augustana. “It’s very difficult to have shared governance if you don’t agree on what the problem was.”

Numerous boards and administrators have run into problems when they have attempted to implement plans unilaterally. The University of Illinois administration ran into faculty opposition at several turns when it tried to create an online university. The plan was aborted in 2009. The university is dealing with similar issues now, with the current president, Michael Hogan, facing criticism from faculty members that he ignored faculty opinions when enacting major changes.

Duke University received faculty pushback to its initial plan to open a branch campus in Kunshan, China. Initial financial projections called for the campus to open with several business school programs, but faculty votes in June against starting those programs threw off original plans. One program was scaled back and approved by the faculty in December, and some faculty members still express deep reservations about the program.

Augustana’s Governance Questions

Bahls knows the perils of perceived unilateral decision making. When he crafted his first strategic plan in 2005, he consulted with other administrators and trustees, but released what appeared to be a largely finalized draft to faculty members for their input.

Even though he sought faculty advice, Bahls said there was immediate pushback. “They felt like it was the work product of president and board chair, and that they did not design it,” Bahls said.

Lee Selander, who is in his eighth year as a trustee, said that when he first joined the board he had little interaction with faculty. “Their involvement was really limited to on-campus meetings in March or October,” he said. Trustees on the board’s academic affairs committee might see a few faculty members at meetings, but then it tended to be the same representatives.

Faculty members agreed. Jon Clauss, a mathematics professor who has been at Augustana for several decades, said Bahls's approach was a departure from that of the previous president, who Clauss said often advocated for faculty interest to the board and typically proceeded with more consultation and collaboration with faculty than Bahls did in his first few years. “Steve seemed to be the more of the board’s man, more the board’s advocate to the faculty,” Clauss said.

Bahls said he spent significant time after the confrontations over the first plan reading publications by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and other research about shared governance. He also distributed readings to trustees to get them thinking about getting faculty involved in governance. “I resolved this time around for the strategic plan to be a joint product of faculty and board,” he said.

Merrill Schwartz, director of research at AGB, said Bahls is now viewed as a thoughtful leader on shared governance (and Bahls has published several columns on the topic).

Augustana adopted a short-term strategic plan in May 2011 to span the time between the end of the last plan and when the new plan could be finished with much more faculty input. Bahls said that process laid the groundwork for January’s retreat.

Augustana administrators had been building toward the retreat for some time. The board holds two meetings a year on the campus in Rock Island. It also holds an annual retreat in January, flying the trustees somewhere warmer than Chicago. The number of faculty members invited to those meetings grew over the past five years. Last year, financial constraints drove the board to hold its retreat in Chicago, where many trustees are based, and Bahls pushed to include even more faculty in the meeting.

‘A Healthy Deliberative Atmosphere’

The point of the retreat was to lay the groundwork for the next strategic plan. The roughly 60-person contingent in Chicago’s University Club was split about evenly between faculty members and trustees. Faculty members were picked to participate based on their involvement in faculty governance. Some had worked directly with the president, such as the current and former Faculty Senate presidents, while others dealt mostly with faculty matters and had little interaction with senior administrators before the meeting.

Bahls opened the session by laying out what he saw as the biggest challenges facing the college, and the provost explained how the college was weighing a switch from a quarter schedule to a semester schedule. The shift would reduce faculty course loads from seven classes a year to six, but would require them to teach classes for longer stretches. It would also line up student schedules with more study abroad and internship programs, though many students said they like the distinctness of the quarter schedule. That discussion has consumed a significant amount of time in the past two years for faculty members involved in the process.

Each attendee was also given a set of articles and some datasets to read and think about before the meeting. These dealt with the demographics of the State of Illinois, the cost of higher education, and challenges facing higher education generally and liberal arts colleges in particular.

After lunch, the group broke into groups of about 16 people each and attended discussion sessions led by Augustana professors and administrators. The conversations were respectful and productive, attendees said. Even when there were disagreements about ideas, faculty and trustees rarely took sides against each other. Faculty members and trustees alike said they got a lot out of the meeting.

Clauss, who led a session on technology and other ways to enhance learning, an issue many liberal arts colleges are tackling, said that having the two groups in the same room exchanging ideas brought out creative solutions. “A good number of trustees gave me perspective I hadn’t thought of,” he said. “And I was diligent in doing homework.”

Paul Croll, an assistant professor of sociology who started at Augustana in 2008, said the college’s emphasis on interaction between the faculty and board made him think positively about trustees even before January’s meeting. He said he approached interacting with the board with a much more open outlook that do colleagues he knows at other institutions. “The simple fact of putting faces to names and thinking about the board as a group of people -- rather than some unknown entity -- alone is huge,” Croll said.

Like Croll, many faculty members and board members said getting to know the other side was the big takeaway from the meeting. Board members said they were surprised at how much thought faculty members had put into the challenges facing the institution and major changes on the horizon, such as changing the curriculum, which helped them understand the complexities of such issues. Faculty members said they got a better sense of what mattered to trustees and how much they wanted the institution to succeed.

Clauss, who given his seniority and his various faculty leadership roles has interacted with the board on multiple occasions, said such opportunities helped him dispel preconceptions. “What surprised me early on, and I was probably pretty jaded in the beginning, was the dedication these people bring to this role,” he said. “They’re not paid to come to these meetings, but they really do care.”

Smolla said the Augustana meeting is a good example of the informal meetings that build mutual respect and go a long way in developing shared governance. While whatever strategic plan Augustana develops might be the same regardless of the process, giving faculty a voice in the process may dramatically alter its eventual reception. “A healthy deliberative atmosphere, healthy lines of communication and interaction among various constituencies matters much more than formal legal authority,” he said.

Schwartz at AGB said getting stakeholder buy-in at the beginning and throughout a project is an important component of higher education governance. Even if the final product is something that is likely to please faculty members, not having them involved in the process can sink a plan, she said.

Size Matters

But not all institutions can do what Augustana did. It is easier to have faculty and boards interact at a college the size of Augustana, where 30 professors represent about 17 percent of the faculty, and most faculty members likely knew someone at January’s meeting. Bringing together the faculty and trustees at a large research university, which would have a much higher faculty-to-trustee ratio, imposes more logistical hurdles. The University of California system’s 20-member Board of Regents oversees 170,000 faculty members and staff. A group of just 1 percent of those faculty members would be roughly equivalent to Augustana's entire undergraduate enrollment this year.

It is in institutions like this where formal structures become invaluable, Kreiser said. Board committees and board members should regularly hear from faculty representatives who reflect the diversity of faculty opinions, he said.

“It is much, much harder, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” Smolla said. “What you’d obviously need to do is draw some sort of cross-section of faculty together with the board in ways in which there could be serious interaction. It’s one of the prices you paid for scale, though.”

Just because faculty and board members were getting along didn’t mean that they were seeing eye-to-eye on everything. At Augustana’s meeting, faculty members publicly expressed concern about some of the actions the board was considering, particularly a plan to expand the library building and convert some of the stack space to a center for student life with dining and meeting space. But when faculty members and trustees disagreed, they didn’t accuse each other of trying to corporatize the university or being resistant to change; rather, faculty members simply expressed concern about how the plan could harm student and faculty research.

Whether Bahls’s efforts pay off in the long run remains to be seen, and the development of the strategic plan, which will bring the two groups together again, will be the big testing ground. But when asked to name the big challenges the university faced in the next 10 years in phone interviews in the month after the meeting, Bahls, board members, and faculty members all had similar answers.

And that’s more agreement than you'd find at many colleges.

 

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