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The American Association of University Professors and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges alike tout shared governance as crucial, as do dozens of books on higher education and countless articles in forums like Inside Higher Ed. Despite the substantial attention shared governance receives in the abstract, though, surprisingly little attention has been devoted to how to practically implement it at an institution of higher education.

In my three years as Faculty Senate chair at George Mason University, I often found myself calling on practical knowledge from my own field of clinical psychology. My specific area of expertise is understanding couples’ distress, and I trained extensively in couples’ therapy—which, in fact, turns out to be a pretty good analogue for thinking about how faculty members and administrators work together in higher ed.

In their manual of cognitive-behavioral therapy for couples (one of the leading evidence-based approaches to couples’ therapy), Norman B. Epstein and Donald H. Baucom lay out a clear, five-step approach to shared decision-making, as follows:

  1. State what the issue is, clearly and specifically.
  2. Clarify why the issue is important and what your needs are.
  3. Discuss possible solutions.
  4. Decide on a solution that is feasible and agreeable to both of you.
  5. Decide on a trial period to implement the solution, if it is a situation that will occur more than once.

This five-step process offers an excellent framework for the practical implementation of shared governance, with two key caveats. First, faculty members and administrators must understand that shared governance is just that: two groups working together to make decisions. Just as couples’ therapy only works if both members of the couple show up and work together, the framework I offer below only works if faculty and administrators come together with the intent of engaging in shared governance.

Second, it is clearly impractical to involve every administrator and every faculty member in every step of shared governance. Instead, colleges and universities typically rely on committees with representatives of each group engaging in much of the work of shared governance. To account for that, we must incorporate explicit engagement of the broader community into a shared decision-making approach.

With those caveats in mind, I offer the following model for the practical implementation of shared governance, based on the shared decision-making model above:

Step 1: Identify necessary committees and establish them with clear charges and compositions. A recent AAUP survey on shared governance identified 29 areas of institutional decision-making that may offer a good starting point for assessing whether your institution is missing any key areas for which a committee might be needed. For areas that require regular input—curriculum approvals, budgetary decision-making—establish standing committees. For nonrecurring issues—like return-to-campus policies during the COVID-19 pandemic—organize ad hoc committees. In either case, it is crucial to ensure that each committee has a clear charge prescribing its work.

Academic committees represent the broader community, so they also need a clearly specified membership composition and method of finalizing their decisions. The extent to which faculty and administrators have “primacy” for a committee’s area of focus should drive the relative number of faculty and administrator members and the respective voting rights of those members.

For instance, curricular committees should have greater numbers of faculty members than administrators, and faculty should have primary (or exclusive) voting power on such committees. In contrast, budgetary committees should have relatively more administrators who will have primary (or exclusive) voting power.

That said, even with issues where one group has clear dominance in decision-making authority, a committee can still have nonvoting representatives who can provide important input for consideration. For instance, even if decisions about facilities are ultimately made by administrators, including faculty members in committees related to decisions about building improvements provides a mechanism for input and engagement from this important constituency.

Step 2: Determine important parameters and considerations. Shared governance often starts to falter at this crucial step. You can find no shortage of examples of new “solutions” that seemed obvious and straightforward to those who made them but were ultimately an abject failure because they were simply not feasible “on the ground.” When faculty members and administrators do not understand each other’s jobs and day-to-day realities, they run the risk of generating ideas that are simply impractical. For example, when faced with complications regarding reimbursing faculty for travel, our university announced a plan to provide every faculty member with their own university credit card for purchases. This well-intended solution was quickly halted when the faculty objected after learning of the required training and potential penalties for noncompliance!

Much time is wasted when a group devotes time developing a solution to a problem, only to find out that the people who are actually impacted by that solution are unable to implement it. You can avoid this if faculty and administrators begin any problem-solving or decision-making exercise by clearly delineating the important considerations of each group.

Step 3: Generate possible solutions. One of the most important aspects of this step for couples is to fully brainstorm possible solutions without evaluating them. You should get all viable ideas on the table before moving forward and save any judgment for later.

Two important caveats for this step: 1) do not let brainstorming become a license to drag feet and never actually make a decision, and 2) beware of groupthink—the tendency of a group to come to a premature, suboptimal decision in an effort to preserve group cohesion. A tendency toward groupthink can be exacerbated if group members have different levels of power—consider the difficulty an assistant professor might have in fully voicing an opinion if their dean is a fellow committee member. A simple process to minimize such groupthink is to have each group member independently generate ideas and submit them anonymously before a meeting. That will allow all ideas to be expressed.

Finally, committees should strongly consider the potential value of soliciting additional ideas from the broader community in this step. Committees are, one hopes, representative, but they can never capture the gamut of ideas of the full faculty and administration. Framing the issue well and then reaching out to the broader community to ask for submitted ideas may generate potential solutions that would otherwise not be considered. It also helps increase transparency and engagement.

Step 4: Evaluate solutions and chose the best one(s). You can evaluate potential solutions in a variety of ways, but most boil down to some version of a simple pro/con list for the primary possibilities. Also, remember that you can often combine pieces of two or more suggestions in a final solution.

Make sure to gather input from people in the broader community in this step, as well. In this step, the committee clearly frames the issue, presents the primary solution(s) that the committee has developed and then gathers input from community members on their preferences. Community input does not have to dictate the outcome, but if a majority or clear plurality of community members favors a solution that the committee does not, committee members may have missed something or failed to communicate well.

Step 5: Establish a method for evaluation. Although it is not always practical for an institution to institute a trial period and potentially scrap a solution if it doesn’t work, it should at least commit to evaluating the outcome of major actions. A new program, budget model or piece of software, for instance, should each be assessed as to whether it successfully addressed the problem that prompted the decision. That evaluation should be as clear and objective as possible, with transparency about results. Committees can similarly seek to evaluate their own processes, as well, in the service of continual improvement.

Missteps are particularly common in certain steps of this model. First, both administrators and faculty can mistakenly interpret primacy or dominance as complete authority in some of their assignments. Even in issues like high-level budget decisions, administrators need to find a way to incorporate faculty input. And even in issues like curriculum decisions, faculty need to be willing to at least listen to input from administrators.

Second, when confronted with issues, institutions often interpret shared governance as soliciting input from another group after identifying a small set of possible solutions or having already largely made a decision. Such an approach neglects important earlier steps and leaves the other group feeling cut out of key processes. In my time as Faculty Senate chair, I frequently framed this issue as faculty needing to be involved in generating possible solutions, not simply evaluating a final solution.

When institutions skip the earlier steps, the most common outcome is that one group—for example, the faculty—will point out the flaws in whatever final solution is presented from the other group—for example, the administration. That then leads to frustration and a sense from both groups that the other is unreasonable. This issue can be largely avoided by faculty and staff engaging together in the work of shared governance earlier in the process, through the first three steps I’ve described.

Finally, much of the success in shared governance is rooted in transparency and open communication. Administrators and faculty members may disagree—vehemently, at times—about how to achieve the best outcomes. But if they trust that each other has the best interests of the institution at heart and communicate openly, they can continue to work together effectively to move the institution forward.

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