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What Ever Happened to Shared Governance?

Twenty-first century challenges are threatening a bastion of faculty power and pride.
University Business, Sept 2011

The idea that faculty members are uniquely qualified to determine the direction, standards, and practices of the institutions at which they teach and do research has been a tenet in higher education. At many colleges and universities, the faculty has almost sole responsibility for hiring, promoting, and granting tenure to its own.

Formal faculty input can extend farther than that to such areas as new academic programs, expansion plans, and building uses, all part of the time-honored practice of "shared governance." That kind of involvement by professors has been seen by many as a natural extension of their academic mission, and it began on some American campuses as early as the 19th century, according to Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors.

Nelson is concerned, though, that meaningful shared governance is becoming an endangered species, so much so that he organized a three-day AAUP conference in Washington last fall to address the problem. "I think shared governance has been in crisis," Nelson explains.

That view would seem to be at odds with a study released last year by the Association of Governing Boards in Washington, D.C. A full 90 percent of the colleges and universities surveyed reported having a faculty governing body—usually a faculty senate entrusted with communicating ideas and concerns to the administration—and 59 percent of responding institutions described the faculty bodies as "policy influencing," even though institutions report that they are mainly advisory.

A number of schools around the country have in fact become known for effective shared governance practices, from the University of Cincinnati—in which the faculty is actively involved in collective bargaining, strategic planning, and infrastructure management—to American University (D.C.), which has made strides over the past decade to gain nonvoting representation on the school's board of trustees and to give term faculty more of a voice in the faculty senate and in university issues.

Last June, the AAUP, which presents an annual shared governance award, recognized Georgia Perimeter College and its president, Anthony Tricoli, for including faculty leaders as voting members of the president's cabinet and the president's policy advisory board. Georgia Perimeter faculty members also serve on ad hoc task teams to address short-term issues affecting the school.

'The newest chair at the table is government. In return for its loan guarantees and funding, thegovernment will demand more results and efficiency.'
—Matthew Woessner, co-author,The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, andDiversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education

But other recently published research suggests that faculty influence is not what it once was. In their book, The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission of Higher Education (Roman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), which surveyed more than 4,000 administrators, faculty, and students at four-year institutions—husband and wife Matthew and April Woessner write that only 17 percent of professors thought they had "a great deal of say" in college governance. (The number was considerably higher at schools granting only bachelors degrees—39 percent—than at doctoral-granting institutions—13 percent.) Another 47 percent acknowledged having "some say."

Their experience is echoed by faculty and administration leaders who admit that the landscape for shared governance has changed over the past 20 years, along with the backgrounds of university administrators, the role of non-faculty constituencies, and the impact of the troubled economy and new legislation.

A Turbulent 2011

The past year dealt some sharp blows to the working relationship of faculty members and their administrators. Controversial new laws passed in Wisconsin and Ohio greatly curtailed the collective bargaining rights of all public employees, including university professors, who marched in protest this past February and excoriated their respective presidents for endorsing the changes. (See "Discord in Wisconsin and Ohio," page 32).

Salisbury U presidentThe Idaho State Board of Education, meanwhile, resorted to what the AAUP's Nelson calls a "nuclear option" last February by suspending the Boise State University Faculty Senate at the request of ISU President Art Vailas. The senate had opposed his proposed changes to faculty governance, which would have put committees on curriculum, budget, research, and master planning under the direct control of the administration without faculty senate oversight.

ISU Communications Director Mark Levine says the state's action came in response to a stalemate between the two sides. "This is only one element," Levine explains, referring to the dispute over the changes in governance. "There's been a contentious relationship between certain faculty members and the administration and they could not work out an agreement to reconcile their differences."

Levine adds that an agreement between the two sides for a third-party facilitator fell through, and that Vailas has appointed a provisional faculty senate to develop a new shared governance agreement, along with a constitution and bylaws that Levine says were lacking in the past.

The events at Boise State bring to mind those four years earlier at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (N.Y.), where the precipitating issue was the faculty senate's insistence that non-tenure-track clinical faculty have voting rights. The subsequent standoff with the RPI president led to the suspension of the senate.

Earlier this year, AAUP investigators released a report charging that RPI violated the shared governance relationship with faculty and that the transitional body that has replaced the faculty senate for the past five years provides an inadequate substitute.

"Rensselaer continues to operate without an independent, self-determining body of faculty governance, and without such a body, neither the faculty nor the board has a constitutional mechanism for compromise," the report's authors argued.

The Changing Landscape

While the recent flashpoints have drawn the most attention and headlines, those involved with shared governance note that there's been more of a changing landscape on campus, starting with an influx of presidents and provosts who were not professors first and who are coming increasingly from the business world.

"There are more career administrators, many of whom have not taught a class or done research," observes the AAUP's Nelson. The Still Divided Academy points out that 74 percent of administrators who had come through the faculty ranks said they "usually" agreed with faculty viewpoints, while the number shrank to 57 percent for administrators without professorial experience.

Janet Dudley-Eshbach, president of Salisbury University (Md.), agrees that her experience as a professor earlier in her academic career has made a difference in how she practices shared governance. "The reality is that I still think like a faculty member. I understand the culture and that people do debate and lock horns, but can still leave the room and be friends," Dudley-Eshbach says. "It's different from a business model. I've seen a lot of university presidents who came out of business fall flat on their faces."

Faculty senates are also facing a new reality in that other stakeholders have become increasingly prominent in university life and decision-making. "Presidents have become more beholden to the administrative apparatus involved in fundraising," explains Matthew Woessner, who just finished a one-year term as president of the faculty senate at Penn State's Harrisburg campus, where he is an associate professor of political science and public policy.

Woessner adds that these days, constituencies from athletic departments to offices for student affairs—which he says have become involved in "an arms race in student amenities"—are becoming more influential when it comes to university policies.

"Rather than listen to the faculty and deans to set the course of the institution, presidents listen to the VP for advancement, the VP for student affairs, the athletic director, the head of the alumni association," Woessner says. "The primary losers in that shift of power have been faculty, deans, and department chairs."

Levine of Boise State seconds that assessment. "In the philosophy of our president, the faculty senate is an important part of the university but not the only entity."

"The sense of the faculty existing at the center of the institution has definitely eroded," concludes April Woessner, an associate professor and department chair of the political science department at Elizabethtown College (Pa.). She notes that, while the book demonstrating that demise that she co-authored with her husband is based on data collected in 1999 by Stanley Rothman, a professor emeritus at Smith College (Mass.), it described a trend that has continued.

"The newest chair at the table is government," adds Matthew Woessner, especially at public universities such as his. "In return for its loan guarantees and funding, the more government will demand more results and efficiency. And it will have a lot more influence on the testing [of students] that we will be doing."

And recent legislation barring faculty from collective bargaining is further evidence, says April Woessner, that lawmakers and even the general public are taking a diminished view of the role of professors. "Somebody outside of the university system does not understand the notion of shared governance," she says. "We're just employees."

It's the Economy

Financial pressures have also left their marks on shared governance practices, and not just during the economic crises of the past three years, Nelson says. "State funding of higher education has steadily declined over a 20-year period, so there's been more conflict over the budget." He points to Florida State University's large-scale downsizing of its anthropology department this past year and the State University of New York, Albany's elimination of multiple language programs. "There were no consultations with the departments or with the faculty senate, so shared governance failed," Nelson insists.

"In the past five or 10 years, many campuses have seen deep, deep budget cuts that have eliminated faculty positions and entire departments," points out Salisbury's Dudley-Eshbach. "That makes the conversation very, very difficult."

What's also become more difficult, faculty senate veterans say, is sharing governance over areas such as whether to put up and how to design new academic buildings, how the budget is allocated, and what say the faculty have over new academic programs. And they offer up examples that they agree could be chapters in a textbook of how not to conduct shared governance.

Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, cites an initiative by its former chancellor to start a new program promoting capitalism, for which the board consisted mainly of pro-business, largely conservative members and just one UI professor. "They were going to appoint visiting faculty, fund course development, and award research grants to faculty agreeing with their ideology," he says. "It was an absolute breach of the faculty handbook, and when it became public, the whole thing fell apart."

Nelson recalls that UI faculty were similarly bypassed when administration launched an online learning site called Global Campus three years ago. "They didn't know about online education," he says, particularly that the UI students most likely to take online courses were those already enrolled in degree programs on campus.

UI administration, he continues, envisioned a degree earned entirely online. "It was a curriculum innovation, and that's officially a faculty responsibility. The Global Campus closed down, and $25 million went down the drain. And it was because of the administration feeling that they knew best."

John Lachs, a Vanderbilt University (Tenn.) philosophy professor since 1967 and a former president of the school's faculty senate, has gone so far in his recent writings to declare shared governance a myth. "The myth is that faculty constitute the heart of the university and are in certain respects self-determining. We really imagine that we have an impact on how the university operates, what its procedures are, and what its aims are," he laments.

"As faculty senate president, you see more clearly that the senate can only recommend to the chancellor," he adds, "I have a lot of faith in the good will of administrators when they have good will, but it's clear that faculty and administrators are not on a par."

A bigger disconnect exists between the faculty senate and the board of trustees at most universities, Lachs warns. "A gulf exists that's very damaging to both sides. As the chair of the faculty senate, once a year I was ushered in to make a five-minute speech to the board and then ushered out," he says.

"I happen to be a great believer in informal contact. I asked the board members to lunch, and how many took me up on that? Zero. At least talk and listen to different perspectives. That isn't being done enough."

In fact, the 2010 Association of Governing Boards study found that only 23 percent of board members and faculty members alike understood each other's role "well" or "very well." Lachs suggests the need for more than mutual understanding. "What would it be like to have one or two faculty members on the Board of Trustees?" he asks. "The right faculty member on a receptive board could make a big difference."

Success at Salisbury

Believers on both sides of the shared governance model agree that it has a valuable place, and is still alive and kicking. Dudley-Eshbach believes that shared governance is vibrant on her campus, noting that her staff meets regularly with representatives of the faculty senate, staff senate, and the student government association.

Even though these bodies are advisory, she takes what they say seriously. "Effective presidents today must really be good listeners," she explains. "When you seek input, it often delays decisions, but I find the results tend to be better in the long run."

Dudley-Eshbach recalls that after co-chairing a re-accreditation committee visiting a school in New Jersey, she came away impressed that faculty there taught three four-hour courses per term instead of the four three-hour courses practiced at Salisbury. "I threw the idea out," she notes. "There was a huge debate over a year and a half—any discussion about curriculum gets pretty heated—and there was a campus-wide vote."

While Salisbury's school of liberal arts adopted the idea, the university's three other schools of science and technology, business, and education passed on the idea, Dudley-Eshbach reports.

"If I as president had shoved the idea down everyone's throat, there wouldn't have been a buy-in. From my perspective, the university management model is akin to a progressive business or company where every employee owns stock. If I empower the faculty and they have input, I'm going to be more successful."

The AAUP, meanwhile, is encouraging its members to become more actively involved in shared governance at their institutions, and those members are beginning to get the message. While the AAUP had to cancel its first Shared Governance Conference in 2009 due to lack of interest, the 2010 version sold out.

The more than 250 participants from colleges around the country heard presentations and took workshops on areas from the role of the faculty senate in budgeting and reviewing faculty and administrative collaboration in challenging times to faculty governance of intercollegiate athletics and challenges to governance from demands for accountability.

"Once upon a time, you just did your teaching and your research," says the AAUP's Nelson. "But people are becoming aware that only community action can generate the parts of shared governance critical to a university's community life."

Ron Schachter is a Boston-based freelance writer.