Toward a Shared Vision of Shared Governance

January 05, 2015

The occasional tendency to link the focused concept of academic freedom to the much broader concept of "shared governance" reinforces the need to re-examine how shared governance should be thought about. The first thoroughgoing attempt to link the two concepts seems to have been the adoption in 1966 by the American Association of University Professors of its Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which it had jointly formulated with the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. Then, in 1998, the AGB issued its own Statement on Institutional Governance, which was widely read as pushing back on active faculty involvement in addressing issues of many kinds.

At one point in our research we were inclined to drop references to shared governance altogether and to argue for avoiding all use of the phrase. We were troubled by the vagueness of the concept, the lack of even rough agreement as to what it meant, and inclinations to use the phrase in sloganeering efforts of various kinds. We are now persuaded that the term is here to stay and in fact can have useful connotations. It cannot, however, be expected to settle most issues of consequence having to do with the precise definition of faculty roles—it remains too amorphous, and subject to too many interpretations, to serve that purpose. Moreover, market conditions and local circumstances have affected faculty roles since the days of the colonial colleges and will continue to do so; the variety of such forces means that there will always be institution-specific answers as to how the role of the faculty should be defined.

We understand why the AGB thought it necessary in 1998 to argue against some of the sweeping claims for shared governance in the 1966 Statement on Government adopted by the AAUP. Too much consultation and an inability to respond nimbly in addressing issues of new kinds had, by the late 1990s, taken a toll. More generally, the impact of continuing developments in digital technologies cannot be underestimated. Currents that are deep and strong are washing over all of us, and the lines between content, technology, and pedagogy have blurred.

This is a major reason that vertical modes of decision making in the academy, focused on departmental authority, have to give way to more horizontal ways of organizing discussion of new approaches to teaching and learning. Pendulums swing, and we are persuaded that carefully considered arrangements for an even broader sharing of perspectives, cutting across departmental lines, have become more, not less, essential. But this is not to suggest a sharing of final decision-making authority, which, in our view, needs to be located unambiguously in the hands of senior administrators with campus-, university-, and sectorwide perspectives ­who can be—and should be—held accountable for their decisions.

There is, in any case, an ever more insistent need to find fresh ways of testing out both new teaching methods and new ways of organizing and scheduling academic work in many (not all) settings. Right now, such efforts are often hamstrung by (a) inertia, present always but driven more powerfully today by interdependencies among the curriculum, the calendar, physical facilities, and scheduling—a lethal combination that can make change seem so overwhelmingly complex that it is not worth even considering new approaches; (b) mind-sets that resist thinking hard about costs and trade-offs until too late; and (c) the perception of many potential contributors of new teaching methods that faculty resistance is the daunting obstacle. The result, too often, is an inanimate coalition of the unwilling that seems mired in place.

We need new ways, maybe even radically new ways, of engaging faculty members and administrators in discussions of options, and how to seize them, that will cut across departmental lines and at times across campus and even institutional boundaries. Exactly how this is to be accomplished will have to be worked out at the level of individual institutions, or perhaps at the level of institutional systems. But three things are clear:

1. Faculty cannot be given a veto over the introduction of new approaches to teaching content, and we do not think that, with proper incentives in place, many faculty members would expect such veto power. It is all too easy, and self-defeating, simply to assume faculty resistance when that need not be the attitude or reality at all.

2. Faculty expertise and enthusiasm are indispensable to finding cost-effective ways of delivering excellent educational content. Absent significant faculty involvement in designing, customizing, and implementing new approaches, frustration and, yes, failure are inevitable.

3. College and university presidents must engage (or re-engage) in academic matters. We do not propose that leaders immerse themselves in the minutiae of course development, for that would be foolish and unproductive. But we encourage presidents to exert academic leadership by appointing deans, provosts, and department chairs with distinguished credentials, high academic standards, and a commitment to academic rigor. Presidents should draw faculty attention to the importance of academic research on the development of cognitive skills. They should establish priorities for key academic initiatives, actively recruit faculty to lead such endeavors, use their influence to insist on rigorous external reviews of all academic programs, and never accept inferior quality or lack of commitment to institutional priorities.

We hasten to observe that the arguments in favor of adopting new ways of thinking about teaching methods and curricular development are far stronger at some institutions than at others. We can hear colleagues saying, "Wait a minute, all is fine here at College/University X; we don’t need to consider radical changes in how we operate." That may well be true at X, at least for now, but the number of institutions that fall in the X category is small and may well diminish over time. Also, we would hope that even the best-established, wealthiest, most-selective institutions would want to cooperate, in whatever ways are appropriate, in helping higher education in general meet its most pressing needs.

So, what should shared governance mean, looking ahead? We agree that it should include the parsing out of some tasks with, for example, faculty members responsible for decisions about selection, advancement, and termination of peers, and trustees responsible for investing institutional resources. There are, of course, innumerable decisions to be made in the vast territory between these two "bookends," and in our study we have tried to indicate how we believe roles of faculty should be thought about in particular areas and particular circumstances. We do not believe, however, that efforts to refine the shared-governance concept should focus primarily on seeking to identify with ever greater precision which issues "belong" to the faculty and which issues "belong" to administrators and trustees. More compartmentalized governance is not going to be effective in addressing the complex issues facing higher education today. Shared governance should not mean, in the words of Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College, "divided governance."

Simplistic as it may sound, we believe that shared governance should be viewed not so much in terms of who owns what, but as embracing a commitment to a genuine sharing of perspectives—to the avoidance of constituency-based thinking (to the extent that this can be achieved in a world of real human beings!). What is most needed on the part of all parties, including both faculty members and administrators, is not just a willingness to reject "we" versus "they" thinking, but an eagerness to embrace good ideas generated by others. Such mutual openness to good ideas from all sources should be accompanied by recognition that nimble decision making is required. Nimbleness implies a need for a well-understood locus of authority, with administrators expected to listen carefully to those with ideas and expertise to contribute, but then to have the confidence and courage to decide.

Those responsible for deciding should be expected to give reasons for their decisions and should be held accountable for outcomes. They should also take pains to explain that in seeking to avoid compartmentalized decision making, they are not attempting a land grab by administrators or trustees.

As Neil J. Smelser wisely observes: "Given both the value and indispensability of shared governance and its deterioration, the only proper course is for administration and faculty to confront one another openly and frankly about their values and frustrations, about what is working and not working in shared governance, and initiate joint efforts to diagnose problems, identify points of vulnerability, and attempt to overhaul and streamline archaic structures."

Important as the right words of explanation are, they must be accompanied by the right actions, which in this case means a demonstrated willingness by administrators to follow wise counsel provided by colleagues who are not primarily administrators. Faculty members need to be given evidence that they are indeed genuine partners in a shared undertaking.

Whatever the mode of decision making, mistakes will, of course, be made. We are persuaded, however, that good will and a modicum of good luck will allow institutions to fix most errors. A key is to establish trust—an elusive but critically important determinant of success or failure. Brian Rosenberg puts this point very well: "I think organizations with a culture of suspicion make decisions to avoid the worst, while those with a culture of trust make decisions to aspire to the best."

Trust in turn depends on a well-defined and broadly understood sense of institutional mission. Faculty members and administrators alike generally believe strongly in the value of what they are doing—otherwise many would have chosen different life paths. In thinking about roles, it is much better to err in the direction of assuming the best about faculty and administrative colleagues than assuming bad behavior that may, in fact, be brought about only by the assumption that it is likely. This has been our experience, and we think it will serve our successors equally well.

William G. Bowen is president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Princeton University. He is also founding chairman of Ithaka, a not-for-profit organization. Eugene M. Tobin is senior program officer for higher education and scholarship in the humanities at the Mellon foundation and a former president of Hamilton College. This essay is excerpted from their forthcoming book Locus of Authority: The Evolution of Faculty Roles in the Governance of Higher Education (copublished by Princeton University Press and Ithaka, 2015).