Fifty years ago, three organizations, the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on College and University Governance, American Council on Education, and Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, collaborated to publish their 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities which called for shared responsibility among the different components of educational institutions. Thus, shared governance was born.
Since then, shared governance has become an integral part of how the majority of colleges and universities function, but according to a recent AGB survey of, most university board members and presidents are interested in developing a higher-functioning system of shared governance.
That makes total sense from where we sit, because right now, higher education is facing significant challenges and we need to come up with solutions together to ensure that we educate the next generation so they are prepared to take the reins. Shared governance is just one part of the needed changes.
As academics, we believe that shared governance is the structural underpinning of the top-down, bottom-up approach that is needed for effective higher education. However, in times of rapid and transformational change, the model can break down – paralyzed by inaction and bureaucratic processes.
We need a model that can both take into account the interests of all parties, and still move quickly enough to make the necessary changes so that we can take advantage of changing markets.
We need to find a better way. The big question is, what does that look like, and how can it be made so that it takes into account the various perspectives and isn’t an impediment to making needed changes.
We think it starts with trust. Because in today’s world where execution on plan is critical for sustainability, trust is the coin of the realm for getting things done. Without it, people will resist even the best intentioned changes.
Take for instance those institutions who recently attempted to hire an outsider as president. In many cases, there was strong opposition from faculty, despite their knowing that significant changes were required to ensure the health and sustainability of the institution.
People support what they help create, and they want a say in decisions that will affect them before the decision has been made. However, I wonder that if the process worked differently, that if faculty had a say in the decision, if each party’s duties and responsibilities were more clearly delineated under shared governance (e.g., hiring, evaluating, and firing the university’s chief executive is the sole purview of the board), or if there was more trust among stakeholder groups, would there have been as much resistance?
The key to making shared governance work is trust, and trust is born of transparency.
Maybe that’s the starting place for updating shared governance.