Is Shared Governance Obsolete or Has It Simply Gone Off the Rails?:

Repairing and Updating Derailed Shared Governance for Effective Collaboration

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Is Shared Governance Obsolete or Has it Just Gone Off the Rails-The Change Leader

Shared governance was designed to promote cooperation between faculty and administration at colleges and universities. However, at many institutions, this well-intentioned model has gone off the rails – devolving into power struggles, overstepped boundaries, and paralytic gridlock.

This dysfunction prevents institutions from adapting academic programs and policies nimbly to changing educational demands. It has led many leaders to question whether the framework of shared governance is obsolete and if needs to be abandoned entirely.

 

How Shared Governance Derailment Damages Institutional Effectiveness

One institution’s dean lamented, “I can’t get anything done because of the faculty senate.” The issue? Dogged opposition from faculty over decisions such as where to build a new student parking lot – a clear overstep of faculty’s purview.

Situations like this highlight the danger in the lack of defined roles and decision boundaries in modern shared governance. At another university, the faculty senate waged drawn-out battles over facility operations and construction projects—areas that are (and should remain) outside their authority.

This persistent overstepping from all sides has allowed shared governance to veer off course into a perpetual state of boundary confusion and gridlock. One college found basic curriculum change approvals paralyzed for months as faculty and administration bickered over which group truly held decision rights.

Beyond blurred roles, the model’s intended system of checks and balances has been corroded by ambiguous accountability. As one president shared, “Faculty demand the final say over hiring the provost. But when I ask who will be held accountable if the provost underperforms, they refused any responsibility.”

At another institution, faculty blocked administrative hiring decisions, citing a lack of inclusion. Yet when offered to install faculty representatives on hiring committees, they balked – wanting influence without any accountability for outcomes.

Power dynamics have also become hopelessly tangled. Some deans find themselves “unable to make any academic changes” due to a small, vocal subset of faculty using Senate discussions to derail decisions misaligned with personal agendas. In other cases, apathetic faculty allow unrepresentative minorities to wield outsized influence.

Across the board, this eroded trust plagues shared governance relationships. Perceived lack of transparency around decision rationale and processes leaves groups feeling kept in the dark until after choices are made – perpetuating cycles of territorial suspicion.

Ultimately, these systemic breakdowns over roles, accountability, power dynamics, and transparency have impeded shared governance’s ability to function as the respectful, collaborative system of checks and balances it was intended to be.

 

Reconstructing the Shared Governance Model

To overcome these deep-rooted pathologies, institutions must realign shared governance with its originally defined principles in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities:

Faculty hold “primary responsibility” over core academics like curriculum, instruction, and research. However, governing boards and leadership teams retain authority over operations, budgets, employment, institutional policies, and matters outside the classroom, including programs and curriculum. They should not tell faculty how to teach their courses or what the content should be. Still, given that the administration and the board are accountable for all things at the university, it is unrealistic for faculty to have the final say on all things.

Using the RACI (Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, Informed) model to clearly map out decision rights and accountability measures across all governance areas is critical. It enforces role boundaries while upholding the representative checks and balances, with each constituency empowered to lead in their area of responsibility – while consulting the others. You can download a RACI Matrix template with examples here →

 

RACI Matrix Example for Higher Education Shared Governance from The Change Leader, Inc.

 

This model clarifies the line between holding constituencies “accountable” for decisions and merely granting them an “advisory” voice. The current accountability vacuum has enabled parties to overstep or deflect responsibility entirely.

Implementing this recalibrated, RACI-defined model requires committed leadership and a multipronged approach:

  1. Conduct an objective governance review to evaluate all current practices against the RACI-defined roles. Identify gaps in decision rights, accountability structures, transparency processes, and more.
  2. Based on findings, clearly redefine roles, responsibilities, decision rights, accountability structures, and boundaries in institutional bylaws and governance documentation.
  3. Install accountability mechanisms like annually publishing governance calendars, requiring written rationale for decisions, seating cross-constituency members on key committees, and implementing cyclical external audits.
  4. Foster a unified “one team” culture through traditions like annual governance retreats, creating cross-constituency task forces, and collaborative onboarding that imparts role clarity.
  5. Leverage technologies that enable governance by implementing communication workflows, feedback platforms, collaboration tools, and performance monitoring dashboards.

While realigning shared governance models can be an arduous undertaking, it’s critical for restoring an institution’s ability to uphold its mission over the long term. Delineated roles clearly allow all parties to lead in their respective domains, promoting a unified ecosystem of role responsibility, decision accountability, consulting inclusivity, and transparency.

One example is Dr. Navine Megahed, President of National Louis University, who successfully navigated significant shared governance challenges to reinvent the institution, as detailed in this post →.

Institutions that can successfully cut through territorial self-interests to reconstruct effective, shared governance around these principles will re-empower their communities to evolve academic offerings nimbly, control costs efficiently, and tangibly deliver on higher education’s unique value to society.

 

Addressing Shared Governance Existential Questions

The pivotal question remains: Has shared governance’s derailment progressed too far? Is the model so institutionally obsolete that even comprehensive structural reforms cannot restore its maximal efficacy?

Those viewing shared governance as an obsolete relic point to its archaic origins of insulating academics from external influences like institutional benefactors and religious authorities a century ago. They argue that modern higher education’s proliferation of accreditation bodies, regional compacts, and public accountability has nullified this original need for shared governance checks and balances.

Furthermore, critics point to the corporate world’s hierarchical decision-making models as proof that collaborative governance is an unnecessary drag on institutional competitiveness and growth. They assert that placing streamlined authority on boards and in leadership could allow universities to be as dynamic and decisive as their private sector peers.

However, defenders maintain that shared governance’s balanced system of powers remains integral to academia’s unique value proposition of safeguarding open inquiry and combating intellectual homogeneity. They posit concentrating authority too heavily in one constituency could erode academic freedom and hasten a scholastic monoculture.

The answer is unlikely to be found in either binary extreme—total abandonment or wholesale preservation of shared governance. Perhaps the solution lies in a renovated, modernized model that retains its core principles of collaborative consultation while minimizing bureaucratic territorial tendencies.

As higher education’s role in the modern world rapidly evolves amid economic, technological, and societal shifts, institutional leaders must pragmatically evaluate whether shared governance has become an obsolete impediment to the academic mission or whether renovating and reinforcing this model is existentially critical.

The path forward likely requires institutional courage and creativity to resurrect shared governance as an efficient system befitting academia’s preeminent democratic ideals or to construct a new governance framework that better balances faculty, administrative, public, and corporate interests in the 21st-century academic enterprise.

The Change Leader, Inc. and Dr. Drumm McNaughton offer expertise in navigating shared governance challenges. Through consulting services, workshops, and tailored solutions, we assist institutions in realigning governance models, clarifying roles, and fostering collaboration for effective decision-making and institutional effectiveness.

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