Zig While Others Zag: Shared Governance in the Time of COVID-19

By Susan Resneck Pierce November 6, 2020 May 12th, 2021 Blog Post

Opinions expressed in AGB blogs are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the institutions that employ them or of AGB.

Several years ago, when consulting with trustees, presidents, and faculty members, I became concerned that shared governance as I thought it should be practiced was being shattered on many campuses. I observed diminished collaboration in those areas in which the faculty traditionally had primary (albeit recommending) responsibility for academic matters. I saw a new impatience on the part of presidents and boards at the slow pace of faculty deliberations. I worried that some presidents and boards were demonizing the faculty, further diminishing collaboration.

I was also troubled by the growing reliance on adjuncts as a way of controlling costs. (Today, somewhere between 70-75 percent of faculty in American colleges and universities are contingent faculty, the vast majority adjuncts.)  Although many are talented and credentialed, research shows that full-time faculty contribute more to student success. Because adjuncts typically earn modest salaries without benefits, many teach at multiple institutions and so are not available to students the way full-time faculty are. They typically play no role in  governance, placing a greater burden on a limited population of tenured and tenure-track faculty.

In 2014, I wrote Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Administrators, and Faculty Can Help Their Colleges Thrive (Jossey-Bass), which led to many new governance projects. These consultancies reaffirmed my perception that many faculty members, administrators, and trustees did not understood those areas in which the faculty has primary responsibility—those areas in which the faculty should be consulted and those areas in which the faculty should be informed. Faculty governance (i.e., the role of the faculty in managing its responsibilities for curricular review, hiring, tenure, and promotion and its contribution to other aspects of the institution’s educational mission such as the cocurriculum, strategic planning, technology as it affects teaching and learning, library acquisitions, and admissions policies) was often ineffective.  A cumbersome system of committees too often performed no meaningful work. Faculty senates were often viewed as irrelevant.

COVID-19 has exacerbated these problems. Significant financial threats have led a growing number of institutions to eliminate programs, staff, and faculty, including those with tenure. Faced with declining revenues from tuition, room, board, and fundraising, presidents and boards have felt compelled to make these decisions quickly, without adhering to established practices. This in turn has given rise to protests from the campus and often alumni. The longer COVID-19 persists, the more we will see such actions and protests.

On the other hand, I know of institutions that have productively brought together trustees, administrators, faculty, staff, and, yes, students to redefine their institution’s strategic direction, its strategic priorities, and therefore its use of resources. Although they too are struggling with difficult choices, they are more fully informed about the implications of their choices and have more support from the larger community.

An understanding of shared governance is the first step for such collaboration. To that end, let me outline the key ingredients of shared governance, many of which are discussed in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities put out by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) (https://www.aaup.org/report/statement-government-colleges-and-universities).

  • The board has ultimate fiduciary responsibility for the institution or, as I like to put it, the board in partnership with the president is entrusted with ensuring the health and integrity of the institution in all its aspects, including its academic mission. In addition to this oversight function, the board should serve as the president’s strategic partner.The board delegates operational responsibility to the president, who in turn delegates operational responsibility to the administration and primary responsibility for academic matters to the faculty in collaboration with the chief academic officer.
  • The faculty, working collaboratively with the chief academic officer, has primary responsibility for such matters as curriculum, research, hiring, tenure, promotion, the granting of degrees, and academic standards. Generally, faculty recommendations prevail, assuming available resources and that recommendations are consistent with the institution’s mission and strategic priorities. When the administration or the board does not approve a faculty recommendation, it is a best practice that they provide the faculty with their rationale.
  • Faculty members should be consulted on and informed about such significant matters as budget, strategic direction, and strategic priorities.
  • Although shared governance conventions in higher education do not include the staff, they are valuable members of the campus community and also should be appropriately consulted and informed.

If colleges and universities are to successfully proceed to what will inevitably be a very different “new normal,” they will need to take advantage of the collective wisdom of all members of the campus community. Given the centrality of the academic mission, faculty members hold special governance responsibilities. Moreover, they are typically among the most creative minds on campus. Boards can, and I believe must, ensure that the faculty has  a voice at the table as institutions chart their path forward.

Susan Resneck Pierce, PhD, is the president emerita of the University of Puget Sound and a well-published expert on matters of leadership and governance in higher education. During the AGB National Conference on Trusteeship (a virtual event, April 12-14, 2021), she will lead a discussion with board chairs of diverse institutions titled “Next-Gen Shared Governance.” For more AGB guidance on shared governance, visit the AGB Knowledge Center.

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