I’ve learned that a multitude of characteristics are unique to colleges and universities, perhaps none more so than the faculty. Cathy Trower, governance consultant and former administrator, researcher, and faculty member, and Barbara Gitenstein, president of The College of New Jersey, explored this issue with me recently.
Why should board members build a relationship with the faculty?
Barbara: Board members hold the institution “in trust." They are responsible for overseeing educational quality. Faculty are the most important means whereby an institution "delivers" the product. Interaction between these two participants can only improve results.
Cathy: On a more basic, fiduciary level, the faculty is the most expensive non-capital investment a university makes. And, faculty working conditions are student learning conditions.
What’s the most important thing for board members to understand about faculty?
Barbara: Faculty consider themselves independent agents. Even faculty members who participate in collaborative research and pedagogy are, by nature, independent workers and thinkers.
Cathy: They can be brilliant, quirky, temperamental, wise, friendly, warm, or aloof—qualities we find in all people. But, in faculty, the range is celebrated and considered almost foundational to their nature. Faculty satisfaction, morale, motivation, productivity, and success matter in countless ways. The very culture and reputations academic institutions depend directly on the faculty and their work.
How, when, and where should faculty and boards come together?
Cathy: As two of the parties to shared governance, they need to learn about and from each other. They need to establish respect and trust. The only way to do that is to spend time together talking, listening, and sharing perspectives about what they have in common—love of the institution. Good governance practice builds in time for boards and faculty interactions—formal at meetings where faculty members present on panels, field questions, or lead small group discussions and informal over a meal or at campus events.
Barbara: Actually, the tradition of engagement and interaction should extend to all internal stakeholders: trustees, faculty, students, administrators, and staff. Higher education is complicated, and institutions benefit immensely when leaders with different perspectives muse out loud, together, about the future.
Cathy: Truly engaging the board and faculty is challenging because if you’ve met one faculty member, you’ve met one faculty member; and if you’ve met one trustee, you’ve met one trustee. I recommend inviting various faculty members to board and committee meetings, periodically, to foster dialogue. Each group needs to see how the other views the world in order to understand the factors that impede and propel academic excellence.