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Professional Opinion

Never give up on shared governance

Why faculty must continue to demand a seat at the table
University Business, February 2016
Cynthia Brandenburg is an associate professor and the immediate past president of the faculty senate at Champlain College. Mike Kelly is an assistant professor and the current president of the Champlain’s faculty senate.
Cynthia Brandenburg is an associate professor and the immediate past president of the faculty senate at Champlain College. Mike Kelly is an assistant professor and the current president of the Champlain’s faculty senate.

As faculty members at a small, tuition-driven private college in the northeast, the familiar refrain of contemporary higher education in shambles rings in our heads.

How will our college’s low-endowment—combined with less than optimal name recognition—reconcile with the declining number of high school graduates in our region? How will the arms race of amenities and the pressures of increased regulations direct the college’s scarce, but stable, resources to places outside the classroom?

How much is needed to deliver a high-quality and relevant education for our students? How are students and their families actually going to pay for all this? How is this sustainable?

Loss of faculty influence

These questions are all too familiar. What might not be as familiar is the common refrain of faculty members who tell a similar sky-is-falling narrative around institutional governance. The numbers of full-time faculty members at institutions across the country are dwindling—we are an expensive proposition that contradicts newer, more economical delivery models.

Along with higher education’s increasing reliance on contingent faculty comes the erosion of tenure and the decreasing influence of faculty in institutional decisionmaking.

The corporatization of academia tells a similar doomsday story: forces largely outside faculty control are reconfiguring our profession while we stand wistfully by and watch the whole sordid scene unfold.

Governance grows alongside the institution

But before we default to the apparent and inevitable demise of the faculty, consider the somewhat surprising example provided by our own small institution.

In many ways, Champlain College has always been what critics of the contemporary state of American higher education fear—a professionally focused, relatively expensive private college struggling to make ends meet by marketing the promise of a job upon graduation.

Twenty years ago, Champlain was a two-year college serving mostly local Vermonters interested in a business degree. Classes were taught primarily by moonlighting adjunct instructors supplementing a day job in the local community.

Historically, governance of the college consisted of little more than social events. Parameters around the terms of faculty work and decisions about pay and tenure occurred largely at the whim of the president.

Today, Champlain has become a robust baccalaureate degree-granting college, with 27 professionally focused majors from a variety of fields, with positive employment trend outlooks, a common interdisciplinary liberal arts core curriculum, and a cocurricular life-skills program.

The physical campus has expanded dramatically, and the college has an online component geared toward non-traditional students. We’re different than we once were in nearly every aspect, including shared governance—which has grown along with the rest of the institution.

A sense of powerlessness

Ironically, the recent and rapid evolution of the college occurred partially because of the lack of meaningful shared governance. During this institutional transformation, the ability to make such wide-scale top-down changes was possible in part because the traditional influence of faculty in institutional decision-making was largely absent.

Programs were added and cut without clearly delineated processes—the old general education model was revamped primarily at the behest of the president, and online programs were intentionally separated from traditional on-campus offerings through divisional reorganization.

The administration recognized that successful implementation of its vision required a larger, fully credentialed, full-time faculty. As progress was made toward this goal, the importance of faculty support for institutional change mounted.

In this context, institutional change by way of administrative fiat could withstand only so much. As enrollment and national recognition grew as a result of administratively driven changes, so did faculty discontent.

While the transformation was a positive for the overall health of the institution at a perilous time in higher education, it caused an increasing sense of powerlessness, stress and turmoil among the faculty. The rapid change happened without authentic faculty voice or input through meaningful shared governance structures.

Champlain’s identity was changing, but the ability for faculty to safely and meaningfully weigh in on these changes was impeded by the speed with which they were happening and the lack of full-time faculty tenure.

An anonymous faculty survey revealed the depth of this discontent, and the college started to recognize that prioritizing shared governance was an important next step in order to maintain an upward trajectory.

As a result, the faculty and administration successfully negotiated a bevy of issues ranging from higher salaries to more clearly defined program discontinuance processes, grievance and dismissal practices, and longer faculty appointment terms.

A place at the table

Thanks to both faculty and administration, shared governance at the “new” Champlain has produced tangible results. If an institution is going to successfully adapt to the contemporary environment, it turns out that traditional shared governance models are an unavoidable byproduct. Faculty expertise must be considered.

All this is not meant to suggest we represent an ideal state that other institutions should strive to emulate. Faculty working conditions remain far from perfect, and governance processes continue to be challenging. Without the protections offered by a tenure-granting system, the barriers preventing a fully authentic faculty voice persist.

Job vulnerability combined with institutional structures that are still relatively hierarchal—and a historical legacy of faculty skepticism—dissuade full participation in matters of governance. Real tensions exist when it comes to balancing faculty and administrative priorities, and practically speaking, we don’t know how the combination of these two will shape higher education in the not-too-distant future.

As Derek Bok posits in his 2013 essay “The Trouble with Shared Governance” (http://UBmag.me/216-bok), “A close look at the record suggests that each of the parties involved in campus governance, including boards of trustees, has evident shortcomings that need to be remedied if higher education is to perform well over the next generation.”

The pressures associated with balancing the academic, organizational and fiscal realities of higher education are viewed differently depending upon one’s institutional role. Reconciling these lenses requires meaningful participation and collaboration from each vantage point. When it comes to room for improvement, Champlain is no exception.

But this growing commitment to collaborative governance at Champlain gives faculty the power that comes from this reality: Traditional colleges can’t prosper without us.

Put differently, change via administrative edict may be a necessary catalyst for major institutional transformation, but the reach of such efforts is limited by the degree to which the faculty is authentically involved.

At the same time, faculty members must recognize the significant constraints administrators and boards of trustees have to grapple with in the current environment of higher education.

Though the institutional and governance structures may look different than what we remember, and the results may be imperfect, a commitment to determining how to move forward in the context of contemporary higher education requires our ongoing participation. The worst thing faculty can do is throw up our hands and give up on shared governance.

The importance of our role persists, and administrations and boards—if they hope to get it right— will continue to hear faculty voices when it comes to shaping the future of this collective endeavor. We owe it to ourselves to be open-minded about change while simultaneously insisting we keep our place at the table.

Cynthia Brandenburg is an associate professor and the immediate past president of the faculty senate at Champlain College. Mike Kelly is an assistant professor and the current president of the Champlain’s faculty senate.

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