Allowed in the Room but Not at the Table

Sidelining graduate students from shared governance does not serve the teaching and learning values at the heart of the academy, Stephanie Aguilar-Smith and Adrianna Crossing argue.

March 2, 2021
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People often speak about “getting a seat at the table”: accessing places where decisions unfold. Academe has its own tables, and it matters who sits at them and, even more, who does not.

As doctoral candidates socialized to question, research and understand the world around us, we’ve wondered about the dynamics of those decision-making tables -- committees, task forces, councils, voting boards and so forth -- and our curiosity turned to action. We spent more than a year trying to find these opportunities within our college and another year advocating for space at them. We scoured bylaws and organized meetings with department chairs, program directors and associate deans -- with people at such elusive tables -- trying to understand our college’s practices. As we observed, listened and took notes, we learned. We learned what shared governance is and, more so, what it could and should be.

Shared governance is the practice of actively involving different stakeholders within decision-making processes. In higher education, shared governance suggests that administrators, faculty members, students and other community members workshop ideas, identify problems and offer recommendations. Fully realized, shared governance assumes that senior leadership, such as deans, presidents and boards of trustees, take such recommendations seriously when issuing decisions.

At the college and department level, committees act as a prime decision-making table. In our experience, however, committees have primarily included faculty members and, in select cases, some staff members. Occasionally, students, particularly doctoral students, have sat on committees, but often only as nonvoting members.

In short, the prevailing arrangement reduces graduate students’ role to that of being allowed in the room but not at the table.

Shared governance is not some new and novel leadership concept. People have long employed and debated it in higher education to varying degrees. But as we looked around, it seemed to us that the exercise of shared governance had reached full maturity in a few places, but over all was superficially and inequitably applied. Everyone we met with generally agreed that their college -- and their respective department or program -- should adopt or at least incorporate shared governance, so we wondered why it was often so underdeveloped.

We especially wondered why graduate students were not consistently granted decision-making roles. Yes, we recognized that shared governance poses challenges, especially as people often equate sharing with the loss of their own influence. But the current arrangement at most colleges and universities -- one that usually sidelines graduate students -- does not serve the teaching and learning values at the heart of the academy.

In moments of social upheaval, such as now, people at these tables make crucial decisions with real and substantive consequences for students. Will the institution expect graduate students, for example, to both teach and learn online? Considering data-collection restrictions posed by COVID-19, how will the college or university support graduate students’ research plans? Facing deep financial losses, will the institution extend fewer graduate assistantships or offer less aid? The responses to such questions directly affect the campus community and graduate students in particular.

A Seat Is a Start

While we, two women of color, see the hierarchical nature of higher education as tall, enduring and, frankly, impassive, we also see how shared governance can provide avenues for students to be heard. Although inviting students to these tables -- committees and task forces -- cannot alone ameliorate that hierarchical structure, a seat is a start.

In a recent essay, Kristen Renn, KerryAnne O'Meara and D. L. Stewart wrote, “There will be opportunities as our field and system work to navigate through this pandemic to transform that ecosystem, to make it more accessible and equitable to more people, to ensure more learning and development occur, and to make it a better place to work with each other.”

We agree. And we believe reimagining these tables is one such opportunity. We pose these four key considerations to those who may influence this reimagining, based on our experience and preliminary success at advocating for shared governance at our own college.

Consider what opportunities exist at your institution to hear and value the input of graduate students. Look around: Who’s sitting next to you? Who isn’t? If such opportunities seem limited, what is standing in the way? How can you help overcome these barriers? Possible approaches to facilitate shared governance include individual departments or programs: 1) partnering with student-led groups, especially those within the college, 2) holding town halls or listening sessions with the specific purpose of generating immediate action steps and 3) widely surveying graduate students’ needs.

Regarding the last point, it is essential to broadly share the results of such surveys and any planned next steps -- as well as transparently communicate why some feedback or input was not incorporated into decisions. In short, consider weaving several of these approaches or related initiatives together to demonstrate an investment in shared governance.

Consider how your institution affords these opportunities. Do you know how the student sitting across from you got that seat? Often, faculty and administrators extend these opportunities to students they know -- those with whom they have relationships because of coursework, research teams and so forth -- or to students with a record of prior service. To bring graduate students more equitably into the fold, consider using an application versus a nomination process and heavily publicize that position and process across outlets like the college’s or department’s website, social media platforms, Listservs and newsletters.

Also, we repeatedly heard faculty members and administrators note how difficult it is to include certain students, such as online learners and full-time professionals. But as we listened to them, we wondered if they directly asked those students about their interest in participating in such opportunities or simply ruled them out. To afford opportunities for graduate students to participate in shared governance more equitably, consider: 1) extending these opportunities to all students and 2) asking students how to accommodate their needs within these opportunities.

Altogether, we caution against making assumptions about students’ interests or how they want to use their time. It is important to respect students’ agency over their interests and priorities.

Consider how your institution structures shared governance opportunities. From our experience, seats matter little if the people who occupy feel disempowered from using them. And often feelings of disempowerment stem from actual disempowerment.

Look around again. Are the students speaking? Do they seem to passively agree with the consensus of the group, or do they offer a divergent view at times? Given the power-laden hierarchy between students and faculty members or administrators, consider: 1) actively soliciting students’ opinions and ideas in these settings and 2) valorizing students’ voices with a vote.

Again, merely inviting students into the room does not realize the promise of shared governance. More so, without a vote, some students may see these invitations as shallow and performative -- or even exploitative.

Consider what your institution is teaching students. Specific signals indicate people care about you. For instance, do they include you, ask for your opinion and express concern for your well-being? At the end of the day, it is people who make up colleges and universities. And what is special about these institutions is that people erected them, among many reasons, as spaces for teaching and learning.

By not including students in governance or in decisions that affect them, institutions signal to -- or teach -- students that they don’t care about them. With that in mind, reflect on how the extent to which students can voice their concerns, suggestions and ideas depends on the way these opportunities are structured and to whom they’re afforded.

Committed to teaching and learning, let’s reconsider the opportunities for truly shared governance, so that students may take seats at tables that fully acknowledge and value their contributions. As administrators, faculty members, staff members and students, we can all learn more together.

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Stephanie Aguilar-Smith is a Ph.D. candidate in higher, adult and lifelong education with a certificate in Chicano and Latino studies at Michigan State University. Adrianna Crossing is a Ph.D. candidate in school psychology at Michigan State University. She studies racial socialization in Black families, social justice training in psychology graduate programs and trauma-informed interventions for minoritized children and families. The views expressed here are their own.

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