Shared governance is not:
1. A collective lack of responsibility
2. “Faculty” governance
3. Administrative autocracy
4. Gridlock and endless debate
5. The 1966 AAUP “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities” with a dash of contemporary seasoning
If you take the popular press at its word, higher education as we know it will be dead in a decade, and one of the main reasons for our demise is shared governance. As Mark Twain famously said, “The rumors of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Much of this dismal prospect is based on misconceptions of shared governance. When shared governance is effective, there are clear rules of engagement and defined areas of responsibility. A healthy shared governance model clearly states the question before the community, who has the right and the responsibility to provide input, and who has the authority and responsibility to process the input and determine the outcome (or in some cases make the final recommendation to the board of trustees/directors). Responsibilities are just as important as rights, and there are explicit expectations for deliverables on a timeline.
A well-functioning system of shared governance makes clear that a wide range of stakeholder groups, not just the faculty, have the right to provide input. In the end, the decision on a matter cannot simply be a democratic vote, but must benefit the institution. For instance, even in the area where faculty bear the most obvious responsibility (the curriculum), the administration must have a voice if a decision will require significant additional resources. Clearly, the board of trustees must be involved if a curricular decision will redefine the institutional mission.
The public’s greatest criticism of shared governance is that it is a platform for gridlock and endless debate. No, that’s the United States Congress! The difference between a well-functioning shared governance system and the Congress is that when the established rules of engagement are not honored, the administration or the board has the authority to restart the process or provide an interim solution. Because the administration and the board are less concerned than a politician about an upcoming election, this intervention is more likely to happen on a campus than in the Congress.
Finally, a well-functioning shared governance system is idiosyncratic to the individual institution. It isn’t simply a wholesale acceptance of the 1966 AAUP statement. Rather, it is something created by the institutional community over time, constantly reviewed and revised. What worked in 1966 is not likely to work in 2017. Healthy shared governance is dependent on the willingness of all stakeholders to improve the institution as a whole, listen to one another, and have the flexibility to change with the times while holding the core mission at the heart of the decision making.