Improving Shared Governance

“Crises are energizing — there’s nothing like a hurricane to bring everyone together — but the current climate of uncertainty and upheaval in higher education, with public approval declining, financial stresses increasing, and social issues playing out on campuses, poses its own set of existential challenges. How can colleges generate the sense of purpose, urgency, and unity that follows on the heels of a Katrina, even without Katrina?” – Scott Cowen
Writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education last year, Scott Cowen, President Emeritus of Tulane University, described the extraordinary circumstances his university experienced in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2004. While their situation was extreme, and urgent, prompting the five month closure of the university and a near total restructuring of many aspects of the institution, Cowen argues that the lessons gleaned from the way the administration and faculty representatives worked through those decisions can provide important insights into how other universities can improve shared governance. Cowen describes “a leaner, expedited shared governance” that emerged at Tulane during this period, which allowed the university to manage through this unprecedented crisis. For Cowen, building a common understanding of “shared governance,” and a common sense of urgency and purpose, are essential in building an effective working relationship between administrators and faculty and thriving in a quickly changing and competitive higher education landscape. As we continue important discussions at Lesley about the structure and purpose of shared governance, I offer some of his recommendations, along with some of my own, for our consideration.
  1. Cowen recommends a university senate, with elected representation, as the best model to effectively engage faculty in shared decision making. Senate meetings should be open to faculty, staff and administrators (who attend in an ex-officio role), with a report out to the Board of Trustees. While I respect that the decision to retain an assembly model or change to a senate belongs to the faculty, my own view is that Lesley’s size and complexity make an assembly model less practical and effective, and that a senate would improve shared governance here. Minutes and motions of senate proceedings should be available to all members of the university community, as should any administration responses to such motions. This transparency helps build trust in the processes of shared governance and creates a shared record of deliberations and actions.
  2. Cowen suggests an executive or steering committee of the senate, invested with the authority to represent the faculty when truly urgent decisions are required. This allows for faculty consultation in such circumstances when time is of the essence. I suggest that this committee should hold regular monthly meetings without administrators, except on request of the committee, in order to plan senate agendas, set priorities and hear committee updates, and that this committee meet with administrators as needed. Senate agendas with any proposed motions to be discussed and voted on, should be circulated in advance of senate meetings.
  3. Engage in discussion to clarify roles and responsibilities. Faculty, for example, have primary responsibility over the curriculum and their own teaching, academic standards, and degree requirements. On many other matters, they can and should have an advisory role, but legal and fiscal authority and accountability rests with the board, and to those whom the board delegates some responsibilities, such as the President. It is important to be open and transparent about these interdependent, but distinct, roles.
“The commitment to shared governance is too often a mile wide and an inch deep. Board members, faculty leaders, and presidents extol the value of shared governance, but it frequently means something different to each of them. When that is the case, at the first bump in the road, participants can become frustrated, sometimes walking away from a commitment to do the hard work of good governance. Worse yet, when that happens, there may be mutual recriminations that can cripple the institution for years.” – Steven Bahls, Association of Governing Boards
The Association of Governing Boards offers similar advice to institutional boards about the need for open communication and clarity on what shared governance is and is not. The AGB also advises that governance processes should be periodically reviewed and updated. There are many other good resources and discussions on the subject of shared governance. I’ve referred here to a few that I’ve found helpful recently. I truly appreciate the work that our faculty and faculty leaders have been engaged in over the last year to review our governance processes and I look forward to hearing what recommendations come forward as a result of that work. I would also love to hear your ideas and suggestions for how we can improve our shared governance at Lesley and what I can do to support the effort.

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