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Do Students Have a Role in Shared Governance?

Do Students Have a Role in Shared Governance?

Steven C. Bahls is the president of Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He has written extensively about shared governance in higher education. His writings having been published in numerous scholarly law journals, as well as in Trusteeship, the Huffington Post, Inside Higher Ed, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Read his previous guest post on the AGB Blog here.

When we think of shared governance of colleges and universities, we think of the role of faculty, administrations, and boards. But many wonder what role, if any, students should have in shared governance. Some believe that students are mere “travelers” through an institution and have little role. Others believe that students should have a meaningful role because they are our raison d'être.

Student can play a helpful role in aiding shared governance, but their role is far less central than that of faculty, administration, and board members.

The AGB Statement on Board Responsibility for the Oversight of Educational Quality appropriately recognizes that boards should understand what student think about the quality of their experiences, though the AGB does not recommend that students serve as voting members of the governing board.

Some involvement of students in shared governance can improve the process.

  • Boards, in discharging their fiduciary responsibilities, need to assess the quality of students’ experiences and whether students are achieving the outcomes desired by the institution. Student insight into these questions can be insightful.
  • Though surveys are helpful to gauge the level of student achievement, there is nothing like individual student testimonials to animate the findings of surveys.
  • When student leaders understand how decisions are made (and that they are made carefully), they are more likely to support implementation of the decisions.

There are many ways to involve students with the shared governance process, short of giving students membership on the board.

  • Students could be invited to board and board committee meetings and given the right to comment. Boards should consider giving student leaders five to ten minutes at each meeting to comment on issues impacting students.
  • Student leaders can be helpful as members of certain committees, including search committees and strategic planning committees.
  • Board members could meet with students informally at board dinners, which can aid in understanding today’s students.
The presence of students in governance reminds us all that our institutions are about more than balanced budgets. Student presence is a reminder of what is central—providing students with the highest quality experience.

For more on shared governance, see AGB Press’s new publication Shared Governance in Times of Change: A Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges, by Steven C. Bahls.

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