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Shared Governance

April 8, 2009

William D Leach has written a very useful report on “Shared Governance in Higher Education.  Its  subtitle, “Structural and Cultural Responses to a Changing National Climate,” however, promises a bit more than it delivers.  It is, in fact, a review of recent scholarly writings on faculty governance and perceived problems with it.  This report can be downloaded from   After reading it, I began to think about my own experiences with shared governance as a faculty member and as part of the senior leadership of our Faculty Senate.   Why has shared governance become so cumbersome and what can be done to improve its efficiency and effectiveness?

First a few words about my take on shared governance.  Shared governance is dogma at American universities, and administrators and faculty leaders routinely endorse and invoke it for their own purposes.   Stanley Fish in an essay on shared governance in Change, which is not cited in Leach’s report,  called it a theological doctrine.  When I first entered academia, shared governance meant that the faculty and administration both had roles to play in establishing university policies and implementing them.  Faculty typically were responsible for curricular matters (courses, degree programs, graduation requirements), student admission and evaluation policies, and selection of new faculty.  In other areas, faculty played primarily an advisory role, e. g., in setting overall institutional missions, in establishing budget priorities, and in the appointment of administrators.  The administration was responsible for managing the institution (budgets, student recruitment and records, facilities and grounds, etc.).  Administrators viewed themselves as institutional leaders, but they were viewed by most faculty as overpaid support staff.

As a rank-and-file faculty member teaching courses and doing research, I paid little attention to the the governance of the university.  In my experience, most faculty do not pay much attention to it.  Except for their department chairs, most faculty do not personally know or care about college or central administrators.  The increasing tendency to hire deans, provosts and presidents from outside the university has resulted in less and less  personal interaction between faculty members and administrators.  For example, I have no idea how many deans and provosts have come and gone in the 35 years that I have been a faculty member.  Many of these administrators lasted only a few years before they moved on to their next jobs.  As a result of the constant turnover of administrators, many faculty at large universities rightly or wrongly are suspicious of new initiatives by deans and provosts because they view them just as CV building activities by careerists who are not really interested in them or the betterment of the university.

For shared governance to work, there has to be mutual trust and respect.  Faculty, especially faculty leaders, have to believe that university administrators are paying attention to faculty initiatives and concerns.  As a faculty leader, I do come into regular contact with the deans, the provost and the president.  Administrators often  share  “confidential” information with faculty leaders that they are unwilling to share with the faculty at large.  This  “hoarding of information is a reflex common to most administrators”  according to Fish.  It is this lack of administrative transparency that often undermines  shared governance because faculty feel left out.  They often learn of administrative decisions after they have been made.   For example, our faculty were informed about cuts in their benefits, which were imposed to reduce costs in response to a major budget cut, only after they had been approved by the regents.   Faculty leaders knew about them, but were not allowed to reveal this confidential information.  Nevertheless,  the mutual trust and respect between faculty leaders and administrators that normally  exists does allow shared governance to work, although not as well if all relevant information was fully and routinely shared with faculty and staff.   The improved sharing of information, however,  would not solve the major impediment to effective  shared governance.

The main problem with shared governance from my perspective as a faculty leader is the proliferation of stakeholders (my apologies to Stanley Fish) and the resultant lack of attention to the needs and concerns of rank-and file faculty.  University administrators have expanded shared governance to include,  either formally or informally, an ever increasing number of of stakeholders:  undergraduate students, graduate students, post docs, alumni, parents, sports fans, tax payers, politicians, etc.  As a result, the role of the faculty in shared governance has shrunk and shared governance has become so diffuse that decision making becomes nearly impossible at times.  Fish describes the results as “paralysis.”  I would describe it as gridlock because, if you remove a few  impediments, shared governance  would work well.

Today, the tenure-track faculty are a minority at research universities.  Where I work, there are more than twice as many professional staff (accountants, purchasing agents, IT techies, administrative assistants, lawyers, etc.) than tenure-track faculty.  These professional employees have their own version of the Faculty Senate and, like the faculty, they have representatives on most major university committees.  Today professional staff  have as much access to the provost and president as faculty.   Professional staff are increasingly becoming preoccupied with policies that formerly would have been considered the sole prerogative of the faculty.  For example, where I work, the professional council decided that it needed to approve the university’s research policy,  a policy that had already been approved by the Faculty Senate.  Without getting into details, they managed to create months of turmoil over this policy because they failed to realize that it was just a compilation of existing policies and that there was nothing new being proposed.  Their concerns about this “new” policy caused the president to not sign it and resulted in a Faculty Senate committee spending a lot of time on damage control before the president would sign it.

Contingent or non-tenure eligible (NTE) faculty now make up a sizable proportion of a university’s faculty.  The proliferation of NTE faculty started as a way to reduce instructional costs in departments with multi-section freshman courses like English and Mathematics.  Nationally NTE faculty are approaching 50% of all faculty.  Many NTE faculty work only part time, and they often are poorly paid.  Because of differences in status, workload, and pay, NTE faculty and tenure-track faculty live in two different worlds on campus.  When poorly paid NTE faculty in our liberal arts and sciences college began to get organized to try to obtain higher salaries, they formed their own organization rather than seek the help of the Faculty Senate, which represents them.  On some campuses according to Leach’s report, NTE faculty now have their own senate.   Yet another stakeholder group has arisen to which the administration has to pay attention. To make matters more complex,  faculty, NTE faculty, graduate student and staff unions are becoming increasingly common at American universities.

An increasingly important revenue source for research universities is indirect cost recovery.  Consequently, one goal of all research universities is to increase the number and size of grants obtained by faculty, especially from NSF, NIH, and DOE.  One popular mechanism for bringing in more large grants is to set up centers and research institutes.  Where I work we now have nearly 100 centers and institutes.  They range from one-person institutes to large research enterprises that employ hundreds of people.   These centers operate outside the shared governance framework.  The Faculty Senate is never consulted about creating them and does not even have an advisory role in their oversight.  Again, another major and influential group of  stakeholders has been created.

Critics of shared governance believe that the university has become so complex and pluralistic that shared governance is no longer an adequate model of university governance   The problem, it seems to me, is not with shared governance per se but with the universities’ inability to decide which are the most important stakeholders and, to a lesser extent, the failure of faculty leaders to deal with changes in the staffing and organization of the universities.  Faculty are the heart and soul of a university.  Clearly faculty should have more influence on university policies and operations than professional staff, alumni, graduate students, or any other “stakeholders” clamoring for attention.  As Stanley Fish points out, universities are not democratic institutions.  Not everyone who claims to be a stakeholder should have an equal  role or voice in shared governance.   Administrators need to focus more of their attention on faculty needs and concerns.   If faculty become the most important stakeholders in the university again, the effectiveness and efficienty of shared governance will increase significantly.

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