Governance

Essay on a new approach to shared governance in higher education

Few people appear happy with the state of shared governance at American colleges and universities. Faculty members complain that they are being disempowered by administrators and trustees who are creating an increasingly "corporatized" academic environment and who are more concerned with budgets than with quality. Administrators lament the extent to which faculties seem oblivious to the fiscal realities threatening the status quo and to the need for significant or even radical change. Trustees struggle to find the appropriate balance between too much and too little involvement in the activities of both faculty members and administrators. And legislators seem baffled by the whole system -- though in my experience bafflement is actually one of the less dangerous states in which legislators might find themselves. It is when they think they understand things that I get worried.

I am inclined to believe that many of these concerns are overblown. Bad actors and bad decisions are unavoidable in any large and diverse system, but these still seem to me the exception and not the rule. Most faculty members and most administrators appear to me to want what they have always wanted: to create vibrant and supportive environments within which the work of teaching and learning can be carried out at a high level. Achieving this goal has become increasingly difficult as the economic model of higher education has come under more intense stress, and this has cast the long-present messiness of the shared governance model into sharper relief. It has never been easy to maintain equilibrium within such a complex system of institutional decision-making, but today the stakes seem higher and the cost of missteps or inaction much greater.

The interesting question is not whether the shared governance model is irrevocably broken, but whether it can be improved. I believe that it can and that improvement must begin with a better understanding of where the fault lines in the current system lie.     

Imagine that two people are charged with the completion of two tasks. They can choose to "share" this responsibility in a couple of different ways: each can be assigned to the completion of one task, or both can work on both tasks together. Depending on the nature of the tasks — and the people — one or another of these approaches may be the more effective.

Shared governance at most colleges has evolved into a model that more closely resembles the first than the second of these approaches. It is common to find the faculty charged with the design, oversight, and teaching  of the curriculum, with some minimal level of input from administrators. Virtually all other matters — co-curricular programming, student life, and, above all else, decisions about the spending of institutional dollars — are chiefly the purview of administrators, with some minimal level of input from faculty. We have, that is, a system of sharing through division more than a system of sharing through deep collaboration.

There is no denying that in some respects this division makes a good deal of sense: faculty members are the ones best-situated by training and position to make decisions about academic matters, and administrators in areas like student life and finance have both training and relevant experience that most faculty members lack. But there is also no denying that the absence of extensive collaboration between those charged with designing a complex and expensive service and those charged with creating a sustainable economic model for that service, especially when there are serious questions about its sustainability, is far from optimal. At the risk of appearing to trivialize our important enterprise — and we do take ourselves pretty seriously — I would liken many colleges to restaurants at which the chefs decide upon the menu items to be offered, the managers work on the business model, and neither group does much consulting with the other. Such an establishment is not likely to survive for very long.

While this particular system of what I would call divided governance has long been in place on college campuses, there is reason to believe that the division has in recent years gotten sharper and more absolute. Faculty members at selective institutions, both large and small, have over time been expected to become more fully and continuously engaged in scholarly activities and therefore have become less likely to carve out time to learn the ins and outs of college governance. Disciplinary training has become increasingly specialized, leaving faculty members less able or less inclined to think in institutional rather than departmental terms. Many more college leaders, especially at the presidential level, are now career administrators or are even being drawn from outside academe, and while this may or may not prepare them to be highly effective presidents, it certainly leaves the faculty concerned, with good reason, about their preparedness to speak to matters of the curriculum.

There is more. Academic administration has itself become both more professionalized and more specialized, as evidenced by the proliferation of graduate programs in the field and of "how to" seminars, conferences, and books for current or aspiring deans and presidents. Though some faculty members do persist in perceiving administrators as failed professors or, in the words of Professor Rob Jenkins, as "managers who just might be more concerned with the bottom line than with educational quality," the simple truth is that running a college has become an increasingly complex job that, like most such jobs, requires preparation, experience, and ongoing study, and that it is hard to do well in one's spare time.

As a faculty member I spent my time studying Dickens and honing my skills in the classroom. As a college president I spend my time learning about everything from admissions yield models to bond ratings to Title IX requirements and honing my skills in leadership. I have found both kinds of work to be demanding and rewarding, but would be incapable of doing the two simultaneously, at least at the level of excellence to which one should aspire.

In short, the days of faculty participating as a matter of course in admissions decisions or of presidents being drawn regularly from the ranks of the faculty at their own institutions are over.

Shared governance is not going away, nor is it clear, given the nature of college communities, that there is a preferable alternative. There are, however, a number of steps that can be taken to optimize the beneficial and minimize the deleterious effects of the system. The most important of these might be an attitudinal shift, on the part of both faculty members and administrators, away from a Manichean view of the academic world and toward a view more nuanced and accurate. So long as faculty members see administrators chiefly as "managers ... more concerned with the bottom line than with educational quality" — or worse — and so long as administrators see most faculty members as utterly indifferent to something as important as "the bottom line," the sharing of governance between the two groups will be fraught with conflict and distrust. I say this knowing that such changes in attitude are much easier to describe than to bring about but also out of a deep conviction that no change would do more to improve the quality of decision-making. I also believe that in this conversation, as in so many others, the loudest and most influential voices come from the extremes and that the majority of faculty members and administrators are not so far apart in priorities as the academic press would suggest.

My other recommendations are more concrete.

1. Rely more heavily for important decisions on representative rather than direct democracy.

All-faculty meetings are simply the wrong place to make decisions that have a serious strategic or financial impact on an institution. There is neither the time nor the base of information nor, at most colleges, the appropriate atmosphere necessary for careful and informed deliberation. Better outcomes are likely to come from elected faculty committees whose members have the time and willingness to study complex issues. These committees should be more fully empowered to make decisions and not just to offer recommendations to the full faculty. At most colleges, the one piece of deeply consequential business that is carried out wholly by an elected committee is the tenure and promotion process. Not surprisingly, it is also the piece of business that typically gets done most carefully and effectively.

2. Be sure that there is at least one body on campus whose members include both administrative leaders and elected faculty representatives and whose charge is to consider, in confidence, matters of strategic importance that cut across all areas of operations.

The remedy for the current weaknesses in shared governance lies not simply in taking authority away from the "full faculty." It also lies in providing more information to, and consulting more extensively with, the faculty in the form of their elected representatives — not only about curricular matters, but about all matters that affect their ability to carry out their work. This will not happen consistently unless it is built into the regular governance structure of the institution.

3. Include an elected faculty representative on the president's senior staff.

It is time that we stopped pretending that the faculty view the provost or the academic dean as "one of them" and therefore as their voice at the table during discussions among administrative leaders. The moment the provost becomes provost, she or he is viewed chiefly as an administrator, even if that individual is broadly respected and, indeed, even if that individual was drawn directly from the faculty ranks (a move that is becoming less common). The substantive and symbolic benefits of having an elected faculty voice in the room far outweigh the risks and drawbacks.  This would not be a full-time position but rather the equivalent of chairing an important committee, since it is essential that this representative continue to be seen chiefly as a member of the faculty.

4. Provide as many opportunities as possible for faculty members who are interested in college governance to learn about all aspects of the college.

It has been my experience that those faculty members who are the finest teachers and most active scholars are only infrequently interested in administrative careers but are often interested in leadership more broadly understood. Such faculty members can best contribute to shared governance if they are as informed as possible about the operations, challenges, and strategic priorities of the institution. Administrators should be prepared to share with interested faculty members, honestly and fully, all pieces of information other that those that are, for one reason or another, necessarily confidential. They should offer seminars on areas such as financial operations, admissions, and fund-raising. Transparency and training do not eliminate disagreement, but over time they establish trust.

The most difficult of these changes to make is clearly the first. Almost never does a group with power relinquish it voluntarily, yet that is precisely what I am calling for in this instance: that is, for the full faculty to vote to relinquish some of its decision-making authority (any form of forced disempowerment would in my view be disastrous). The only chance for such a change to be approved would be, at the same time, to empower the faculty with more say, through elected representatives, in the decisions about which they presently have almost no say at all. Such a step might begin to move us at least minimally away from divided governance and toward a system in which tasks of great importance are more genuinely and regularly shared.


 

Brian Rosenberg is president of Macalester College.

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Lessons for trustees from U. of Virginia governance meltdown (essay)

The governance crisis at the University of Virginia is over and the results are surprisingly positive. A strong president remains in place and a great university remains on track. I even applaud Governor McDonnell’s decision to reappoint the Board of Visitors chair, Helen Dragas. She said she had made a mistake and had learned from it. He accepted the apology, noted she was a good and highly capable person, and said let’s move on. The legislature agreed and re-elected her. This is the kind of class we need more of in national politics.

So what about the “But...” above? Well, the concern is rooted in our society’s tendency to overdraw lessons from events that get a lot of media attention. In this case, many people are likely to say that the message from Charlottesville is that trustees should leave the administration alone and let them manage the university and shape its future.

If trustees react in this way, it will be a disaster for American higher education.

What we should learn from Charlottesville is about how trustees challenge administrators and faculty — not whether they should.

The distinction is critical because, in today’s kinetic higher education environment, the role of trustees in both operational oversight and in setting mission is far more important than ever.

I agree that trustees should be extremely wary of involvement in the academic core — the key areas of curriculum, instruction, research agenda, and promotion and tenure.

These are certainly sensitive issues. But they shouldn’t be entirely off-limits, not least because they can’t be extricated from the question of mission, which is always squarely in the trustees’ province.

Before we get to the tough academic parts, though, here are some thoughts about the relatively more straightforward operations side.

Colleges and universities over all have higher debt ratios than in the past. There are mostly good reasons for that, but more debt should mean more vigilance. Trustees, typically drawn from business, have generally been good at financial oversight. So there’s reason for confidence. But for heaven’s sake don’t let up.

One area where trustees haven’t done such an effective job is insisting on more outsourcing and, where possible, more collaborations with other institutions. That’s a problem because colleges and universities too often suffer from the Not Invented Here syndrome and tend to show pride in the range of services and programs they offer and the number of people they employ.

To illustrate where this mentality leads, consider an example from business. Before IBM’s near-collapse into bankruptcy in 1990, its executives were ranked and compensated in large part on the number of employees in the divisions they managed. When the architecture of computing changed and the competitive heat quickly turned up to a boil, the personnel bloat nearly killed a great company. Today, companies comfortably outsource even core activities. Netflix, which absolutely depends on high-performance networking and storage, relies on Amazon for these services.

To get a synoptic view of operations issues, trustees should read Bain & Company’s study of UC-Berkeley. Critics of American higher education have tried to use this important and well-done report as part of an effort to suggest that our colleges and universities are highly inefficient. But Bain’s work doesn’t say that at all: in situations where they recommend improvement, the consultants consistently cite not cases from business but exemplary practices at other universities. The conclusion isn’t that there’s rampant inefficiency in American higher education; it’s that some universities are doing well in some areas but all aren’t optimal in everything all the time.

Not always being optimally efficient is nothing to be ashamed about — businesses aren’t either. It’s why they hire consultants at a much higher rate than universities. Of course, don’t forget to keep an open mind when you get difficult recommendations: IBM’s leaders had plenty of spot-on outside analysis well before things nosedived for them in the late 1980s. Unfortunately, the complacent management and board weren’t willing to listen.

As critical as it is for trustees to be assertive in operations, it’s now far more important for them to be visible on the super sensitive question of institutional mission and everything that flows from that.

The comments that follow speak in part to trustees at institutions that lack a clear mission. My view is this is a fairly small group. However, in today’s contentious times, it is also important for all trustees to be sure that their college or university’s mission, and the planning that supports it, is clearly articulated in a way that the public — including legislators and donors — can easily understand. Open discussion and debate is the best way to do this.

In the case of mission, the guidelines for public trustees are quite different from those for their independent peers. Trustees of the former have as their first responsibility not the institution on whose board they serve, but instead the public’s interest in higher education. Unlike private university boards, which may choose to invest in duplicative capabilities because they judge that the market requires it, public trustees must be extremely careful to avoid unnecessary duplication. Unfortunately, the kind of argument too often advanced by administrators, “What’s good for Normal State U is good for the state,” isn’t necessarily true. When trustees hear this kind of rhetoric, they should be prepared to challenge.

I can’t provide much detail in this short essay, but here are some brief suggestions of where to look for academic models of effective mission focus.

Number one on my list for university trustees is to visit just about any two-year college. For several decades now the business world has revered the concept of  “lean manufacturing.” The two-year colleges know all about it. They’ve been doing “lean education” for almost that long. To illustrate from the perspective of academic programs, if there isn’t a strong market for it, two-year colleges don’t do it. And, in most cases, when they can productively cooperate with another institution in either operations or academics, they will.

University trustees will say that community colleges are different, and they’ll be right. But that doesn’t mean a visit wouldn’t be valuable — you can learn a lot just from the two-year leaders’ pragmatic attitudes and energetic approach to planning.

 But studying a university or two will be necessary, so here are some models to consider.

Start with Clemson. Simply put, this university has the best approach to planning of any public institution I’ve seen. And planning hasn’t been an abstraction in Death Valley. Instead the university has used well-thought-out processes to make some very tough choices, primarily at the graduate level. Led by an extraordinary president and provost, Clemson’s faculty took a good chunk of time about  a decade and a half ago to work through the options and make choices about where — which disciplinary areas and at which levels — they could compete and where they couldn’t. As a result, some programs grew with additional investment and some didn’t.

Did it work? I think it’s been a huge success in every respect. Despite very low state support, Clemson today is highly competitive. Talk to them. Visit if you can -- it’s a much nicer place than the name “Death Valley” would suggest.

My understanding of Clemson is that its rather radical strategy didn’t come from the board, but was strongly supported by it. But don’t assume a board can’t play a leading role. On to Cleveland.

Case Western Reserve University emerged from a merger in 1967 with some very good programs, some weak ones, and a less-than-stellar resource base. After over a decade of financial struggles the Board of Trustees decided that the status quo wasn’t financially viable over the long term. They decided on changes and not minor ones. Whole colleges were dropped (for example Library Science in 1986), a great many doctoral programs were effectively suspended, and investment was refocused into just a few key areas. The outcome? CWRU is very strong across the spectrum at the undergraduate level (like Clemson), and is highly focused in doctoral and professional education. The advanced programs that remain consistently compete very well with the best of their peers. CWRU had leadership problems for a while, and that slowed progress, but their strong focus kept them moving and allowed Cleveland’s University Circle to attract a president-provost team on the level of Clemson’s. They’re on the move. Go visit.

In evaluating existing programs at research universities, remember that the issue isn’t just to limit the number of disciplines that offer doctorates. The specific programs have to be focused as well. There are just a handful of places that can, for example, attempt comprehensive research and education in areas like Chemistry or Engineering. Stanford and MIT, yes. Normal State, no.

In considering program focus, one model to look at is Wright State University, which has an excellent Ph.D. in engineering that is linked to programs at Ohio State, Cincinnati, and the University of Dayton. This tightly focused program is loved by employers -- a bedrock criterion for quality that trustees should never forget.

There are doubtless other good examples of successful focus I don’t know about. But the point here is that trustees have a responsibility to be informed and then to discuss these models in public. For institutions with advanced programs, I believe commitment to this kind of analysis is a core trustee responsibility.

If you’re at a university that doesn’t have a lot of doctoral and professional programs to worry about, consider the largely untapped potential of academic collaboration. I don’t mean just a casual link here and there, but rather interdependent degree programs. “Interdependent” means that you rely on someone else to provide a field that’s critical but one where you can’t reasonably achieve high quality on your own.

To illustrate, say you have good faculty depth and quality in some traditional aspect of science but can’t compete for leading-edge people in the increasingly essential computational and molecular imaging areas.

What to do? Well, the usual option chosen by universities is to give their students a watered-down version taught by whoever they can hire.

That’s small thinking.

Why not instead partner with a research university to prepare your students at the state of the art? If Normal State contracts with Advanced State for four courses or so a year, the latter can hire another faculty member. That will make both programs stronger. This kind of arrangement wouldn’t have been reasonable 30 years ago, but today’s technology makes all kinds of sharing feasible.

Technology brings us to the question of the massive open online course (MOOC). Trustee advocacy for the MOOC is reported to have been a major cause of the Virginia board’s brief sojourn in the wilderness.

Was the trustees’ infatuation with the MOOC worth it? To answer, let’s start by asking whether this approach is a new idea or just an old one done better. My own view is it’s the latter; we’ve had media-enriched broadcast learning for a long time. Then the next question: Is instruction in a MOOC done so much better in consequence of today’s technology that it crosses a threshold to critical mass? Meaning that it justifies pervasive use? Looked at it from the perspective of students in general, I think the answer here is “no.”

Research and experience show that highly motivated and mature individuals can succeed at complicated tasks on their own. This means the stand-alone MOOC will surely benefit many focused and career-oriented adults, and by itself is a good reason for these courses to exist. Super-talented undergraduates will do well too, but don’t expect many to choose online over Stanford or MIT. They are smart, after all.

But what about those adults who are motivated but who are rusty in math and writing and generally lack confidence? These folks are unlikely to do well with pure online programs, no matter how good the materials are. For them, and for mainstream undergraduates, the best approach might be to mix some of the high-quality stuff from a MOOC into a local course. Make a MOOCshake? Sure.

How about considering some really radical ideas for our advanced technology? For example, why not use computer-based programming to reshape the curriculum so that students get modular coursework that is thoughtfully distributed across the years? Right now, we present dry general education content like science for nonmajors in a “fire and forget” first year course. We fire a stream of facts, they forget in a few weeks.

Instead, why don’t we offer strategically distributed course modules that deliver science knowledge in context — for example, connect ecological principles to a major, like business?

Again, my suggestions here aren’t for trustees to advocate some specific approach for the faculty to consider. Instead, board members should support the administration and faculty in disdaining  superficial thinking in order to reflect deeply on how technology could improve the education of their own students.

In closing, some core suggestions for the busy trustee-administrator-faculty troika.

  1. On the operations side, do outsource where you can. The principles employed by modern business really apply in this area and there’s always something important to learn from others.
  2. If you have expensive graduate and professional programs, do ask hard questions about their relevance and don’t be swayed by departmental claims about a halo effect on institutional prestige. The reality is that weak programs don’t help anyone. And they can cause a lot of collateral damage.
  3. Do look carefully at the opportunity to share academic programming in an innovative way. The focus here should be on benefits to students, not trying to get a virtual photo-op by riding shotgun on the latest fad.
  4. Do not worry about the datarati and their “you didn’t do it if you didn’t measure it” mentality. Sometimes that’s right, but not always and especially not on the academic side. One little appreciated fact about standardized assessment is that getting the same measure over time necessarily ossifies the curriculum. In an era of breathtakingly rapid knowledge growth, do we want the content of our courses to be fixed in place, like an insect in ancient amber?
  5. Do get all flinty-eyed when you discuss the debt service numbers with the president and vice president for finance. Discussions on this issue should rank comparatively low on the collegiality meter.

America’s colleges and universities are our most powerful asset in a rapidly changing economy, and the trustee system is a key part of their historical success. However, as more and more ill-informed critics suggest that U.S. higher education must be somehow “transformed,” trustees will need to be both more knowledgeable and more visible in order to effectively defend what works in the academy.

Finally, one of the most successful presidents I’ve worked with, Brother Ray Fitz of the University of Dayton, said that his goal was to be “bold but not obnoxious.” The crisis at Virginia notwithstanding, I think this is an excellent motto for trustees.

Garrison Walters, a former higher education bureaucrat, is author of the recent Total F*ing Magic: A Non-Technical Introduction to Computers and Networking.

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