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Sharing Governance

Sharing Governance

Bryant Cureton is the president emeritus of Elmhurst College and a senior consultant with AGB Consulting.

At a recent board retreat focused on shared governance, a room full of trustees and faculty members had, by the end, hammered out a plan for working together to clarify and strengthen the ways they cooperated to lead the institution.  In the wrap-up session, one trustee who had been an active participant in the dialog stood up to share a nagging concern.  “I agree with all that has been said and done here,” he said, “except for the expression ‘shared governance.’  It seems to me that the one thing the board cannot share is governance.”

And therein lies a fundamental paradox for boards that are serious about engaging the faculty in the processes of moving the institution forward, but are also serious about the essential fiduciary responsibilities that are in their hands alone.

We can try to adjust the terms.  “Collaborative decision-making” and “integral leadership” are insightful concepts.  But “shared governance” is what we actually say.

Another approach is to enlarge the notion of governance to include more than just that which boards alone can do.  Steve Bahls, in his excellent book Shared Governance in Times of Change, calls the idea of “shared governance as equal rights to governance” a limiting and problematic approach.  This is a helpful step in the discourse of clarification.

But underneath, the paradox and the dilemma are still there. 

Governance is something that needs to be both shared and protected. 

The challenge is to balance and integrate these two truths. F. Scott Fitzgerald had a point when he wrote that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

And so my instinctive response to the worried trustee at the board retreat was to say, “Look at what you have done today.  The board has invited faculty leaders into its space and worked together on strategies for listening to each other, respecting and challenging each other, and holding each other close as you pursue what is best for your institution.  Sounds like progress toward shared governance to me.”

AGB recently released a report that provides a detailed look at shared governance on campuses, breaking out information by public and independent institutions, as well as by presidents and board members. Download the report here.
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