Shared or Divided Governance?

July 29, 2014

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.

Search for Jobs


  • Viewed
  • Commented
  • Past:
  • Day
  • Week
  • Month
  • Year
Back to Top