What is Shared Governance in Higher Education?:

Honoring Academic Traditions in Rapidly Changing Environments

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What is Shared Governance in Higher Education?: Honoring Academic Traditions in Rapidly Changing Environments

As academics, we believe that shared governance in higher education is the structural underpinning of the top-down, bottom-up approach that is needed for effective higher education institutions. With the rapid changes in higher education, how can shared governance continue honoring academic traditions while transforming into a higher-functioning system? Let’s look at the different aspects of accomplishing a balance while meeting goals and objectives.

What is Shared Governance in Higher Education?

Fifty years ago, three organizations, the American Association of University Professors Committee on College and University Governance, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges collaborated to publish their 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, which called for shared responsibility among the different components of educational institutions.  Thus, shared governance was born.

Since then, shared governance has become an integral part of how the majority of colleges and universities function, but according to a recent AGB survey, most university board members and presidents are interested in developing a higher-functioning system of shared governance.

That makes total sense from where we sit because right now, higher education is facing significant challenges, and we need to come up with solutions together to ensure that we educate the next generation so they are prepared to take the reins.  Shared governance is just one part of the needed changes.

A New Approach While Honoring Academic Traditions

In times of rapid and transformational change, the model can break down – paralyzed by inaction and bureaucratic processes.

We need a model that can both take into account the interests of all parties, honor academic traditions, and still move quickly enough to make the necessary changes so we can take advantage of changing markets.

We need to find a better way.  The big question is, what does that look like, and how can it be made so that it takes into account the various perspectives and isn’t an impediment to making needed changes?

We think a better model for Higher Education Shared Governance starts with trust.  In today’s world, where the execution of the plan is critical for sustainability, trust is the coin of the realm for getting things done.  Without it, people will resist even the best-intentioned changes.

Take, for instance, those institutions that recently attempted to hire an outsider as president.  In many cases, there was strong opposition from faculty despite their knowing that significant changes were required to ensure the health and sustainability of the institution.

Shared Governance and Getting Stakeholder Buy-In

People support what they help create, and they want a voice in decisions that will affect them before the decision has been made.  However, I wonder if the process worked differently if faculty had a voice in the decision and if each party’s duties and responsibilities were more clearly delineated under shared governance (e.g., hiring, evaluating, and firing the university’s chief executive is the sole purview of the board), or if there were more trust among stakeholder groups, would there have been as much resistance?

The key to making shared governance work is trust, and trust is born of transparency.

Maybe that’s the starting place for updating shared governance.

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