The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Understanding the Culture of Higher Education: What Is Shared Governance?

What Is Shared Governance and Its Role in Higher Education:

One of the unique features of an institution of higher education is that it is not run according to the traditional corporate management top-down model.  Critical to understanding how a college or university operates is to grasp the concept of shared governance.

According to the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), governance of higher education institutions traditionally has been a responsibility shared by faculty, administrators, and trustees. [1]

All institutions are based upon an authorizing document — a charter, a statute, or even a state constitutional provision. The ultimate responsibility for effecting the purpose of an institution rests with the governing board.  An example of a statement of board responsibility is Hampshire College:

The Board of Trustees is the governing body of Hampshire College… The Board of Trustees shall have and may exercise all of the powers of members and all of the powers of the Corporation. Without limiting the generality of the foregoing, the Board of Trustees shall have all the powers of directors, including general supervision and control over the property and affairs of the Corporation. The Board of Trustees shall: formulate and oversee the educational and fiscal policy of Hampshire College; elect or appoint all officers of the Corporation, including the President; appoint all other officers of instruction and administration and determine their duties and responsibilities, their tenure, their conditions of employment, and their remuneration; make and from time to time change rules and regulations to ensure the good government of Hampshire College, including procedures for enforcement and penalties for violation; fix all tuition and other fees and charges; and confer all honors and degrees. [2]

According to Rodney A. Smolla, president of Furman University and a scholar of free expression and shared governance in higher education, while boards may have the ultimate authority, “In a well-functioning university, boards generously delegate and share authority with faculty and administrators, … And when there are basic issues involving institutional identity, social policy, or the direction of the university, it is very healthy not to fall back on hard legal lines, hard lines of authority, and to be creative and solve problems in more informal settings where faculty and trustees are relaxed and free to express ideas.” [3]

Traditionally, “[t]he faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.” (AAUP Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities [4])

While the President/administration has responsibility for the operational effectiveness of the institution, including planning, policy and budget, the expectation in shared governance is that there will be communications with the faculty and coordination with the board.

However, according to Robert Kreiser, associate secretary for the AAUP’s department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance, “This traditional relationship has changed somewhat in recent years, and many say that boards and administrators are making more decisions without faculty input. ‘More and more there’s the expectation that decision-making will be kept to those in positions of formal authority, and it comes from a lack of understanding of traditions of faculty governance.’” [5]

In a Chronicle of Higher Education article, Exactly What Is ‘Shared Governance?’, a dean recounted that ‘a faculty leader at her institution actually told her that shared governance means that professors, who are the ‘heart of the university,’ delegate the governance of their universities to administrators, whose role is to provide a support network for the faculty. ‘He said, in all seriousness, that faculty have the primary role of governing the university and that administrators are appointed to spare them from the more distasteful managerial labor.’”

The author of the article, Gary A. Olson, who is provost and vice president for academic affairs at Idaho State University, said that may be a more commonly held notion in academe than it at first appears. I know several faculty senators at one institution who regularly refer to faculty as ‘governance,” as in “You’re administration, and we’re governance.” [6]

“There is little incentive for tenured faculty members to go along with a plan they do not support, so major decisions have to be consultative if they are to be effective,” he said.

Kreiser said faculty members should also be consulted on most issues, even if they don’t relate directly to the academic mission, since that mission may still be affected. [7]

Among other things, Kreiser attributes the lessening of faculty influence to the increased prevalence of senior administrators who did not come up through the faculty ranks. “When you have chief administrative officers and boards coming from nonacademic backgrounds, they tend to do what comes naturally, which is to make decisions without sharing with faculty until major decisions are already made,” he said.

Other higher education observers point to the fact that, with all of the challenges currently facing higher education, college administrations need to move quickly or face existential crises. A deliberation with faculty members can take time.

Still others point to faculty members’ own abdication of responsibility. They have taken on larger and larger academic responsibilities, they say, and many would prefer to leave administration to others — that is, until it impinges on their work.

The result of putting distance between faculty members and those responsible for governing is that, over time, the governing body and those who are governed begin to forget where the other side comes from, observers say. “One of the issues we faced at Augustana was, if you polled faculty about the five biggest issues the institution faced, it would be different than if we surveyed the board,” said Steven C. Bahls, president of Augustana. “It’s very difficult to have shared governance if you don’t agree on what the problem was.” [8]

Numerous boards and administrators have run into problems when they have attempted to implement plans unilaterally. The University of Illinois administration ran into faculty opposition at several turns when it tried to create an online university. The plan was aborted in 2009. The university is dealing with similar issues now, with the current president, Michael Hogan (who resigned effective July 1 2012 – see Chicago Magazine – facing criticism from faculty members that he ignored faculty opinions when enacting major changes.

Duke University received faculty pushback to its initial plan to open a branch campus in Kunshan, China. Initial financial projections called for the campus to open with several business school programs, but faculty votes in June against starting those programs threw off original plans. One program was scaled back and approved by the faculty in December, and some faculty members still express deep reservations about the program.

And in June 2012, we have the shared governance situation that arose at the University of Virginia when the Board of Visitors fired President Theresa Sullivan (since then restored to her position) and the campus community strongly objected and called for the resignation of those on the Board of Visitors who led the effort to remove President Sullivan. [9]

Given what has transpired at the University of Virginia and these other examples, it’s clear that shared governance is a strong principle of academic institutions.

Questions and Challenges for Shared Governance:

  1. What are some authoritative sources on shared governance? 
  2. Are institutional statements on shared governance sufficient for changing times in higher education?
  3. Is it realistic to expect that the governing board as well as students, classified staff, faculty, managers/administrators can all have a role in institutional governance?  If so, what are those roles and are they sufficient or do they need to change?