For years, we have heard that shared governance is a drag on institutional agility. Common wisdom has held that the multiple voices, committees and perspectives that participate in decision making slow down the pace of change in higher education -- leaving colleges unresponsive to disruptive forces and emerging market conditions. It’s far better, we have been told, to centralize power in a CEO-type leader or in the hands of a business-oriented board.
The breathtakingly fast pivot that our institutions have recently made in response to the COVID-19 crisis turns these assumptions on their heads. Overnight, colleges have been able to reconstitute themselves remotely. And colleges with healthy shared governance -- those that regularly practice sharing information, consulting broadly and relying on constituent expertise in making decisions -- were well served and have done this more effectively than colleges that rely only on top-down decision making.
As a college president facing the historic decision to move to remote instruction for the remainder of the semester, relying on our mechanisms for shared governance meant that I received timely and informed advice from our various governance committees and that I could turn key aspects of our transition over to the people who brought on-the-ground expertise. For instance, our faculty governance committee galvanized faculty to develop temporary policies and practices for remote teaching. The Rhodes Student Government assisted with communication, gathering student concerns to share with us and boosting the signal of our official communications. Staff leaders helped shape emergency personnel policies and provide the infrastructure needed to support students and faculty members during this period of rapid change. Our board leaped in with support, wise advice and attention to the impact on our financial health.
I am confident that using our shared governance structures helped, rather than hindered, our response. We have succeeded because of our commitment to shared governance, not in spite of it.
Shared governance was effective in this crisis because we enacted it on a well-established foundation of transparency, trust and inclusion. Without these ongoing commitments, shared governance fails in both ordinary and extraordinary times.
For presidents and boards planning for the fall semester in uncertain times and facing the next stage of crisis response, investing in effective shared governance will be time and energy well spent. Three key areas that should be on the minds of higher education leaders are:
Being transparent in communicating the financial realities of the college’s business model. Without adequate information, your constituencies are unable to give you meaningful advice. Moreover, the decisions they make within their own purview are likely to be at odds with the college’s needs.
At Rhodes, we regularly invite faculty and staff members into discussions about the college’s financial health, our challenges and our institutional goals. Our senior leadership team strives to share data and information widely, listen to advice and provide nondefensive explanations for decisions. We have built relationships with student leaders and invite students to elect representatives to the Board of Trustees. Thus, when I had to call on committees for immediate action, they all already had a deep understanding of the fundamentals of our business model, our culture and our mission and were able to make helpful decisions and offer useful advice in a timely way.
Building a culture of trust so that decisions are in the hands of those with the most information and expertise. At Rhodes, we entrust faculty members with the care of the curriculum and academic policy and rely upon them to make decisions with an eye toward the culture, business model and mission of the college. They can do this because they have access to the key financial information about the college. Students serve as trusted members of key committees and have regular interaction with senior administrators and the board. Agreement about the big picture meant that in this crisis, we could trust the various layers of governance to work alone as well as together on behalf of the college’s goals.
Creating inclusive teams so that multiple perspectives can be considered. We’ve worked to build a diverse leadership team and ensure that dissonant and minority viewpoints are welcomed and heard. This meant that even in our initial response to the COVID-19 crisis, we were cognizant of the needs of our diverse constituencies. The perspectives of our hourly workers, of our international students, of those with disabilities or other special needs were part of our initial planning. We didn’t need to circle back around and remake decisions because we had forgotten to notice or to ask.
The supposed failures of shared governance are often failures of one or more of these foundations. When presidents lock down information, refuse to trust the informed wisdom of others or search for simple answers to complex problems, they undermine the very things that make shared governance effective.
In contrast, when leaders have the courage to share the power that comes with the knowledge of their institution’s market position, financial structures and strengths and weaknesses, shared governance is a force for positive change.