The Trouble with Shared Governance

By Derek Bok    //    Volume 21,  Number 5   //    September/October 2013

Shared governance has few defenders—or at least, few people who support it publicly. To critics among former college and university presidents and board members, it is too cumbersome a process, especially in today’s fast-moving world. To disgruntled faculty, shared governance works badly because it is often ignored by administrations that are too powerful and by board members who are too quick to meddle in academic matters they do not really understand.

There is at least some truth in these allegations. Board members in a few public universities have certainly interfered in a hasty, ham-fisted way; the debacle at the University of Virginia is a particularly lurid example, but it is hardly the only one. On other campuses, the administration, with the apparent support of the board, has replaced most of the tenured faculty with part-time or term-limited instructors who have been given no effective voice in governance.

Impatient board members and high-handed presidents are not the only ones who create problems of governance. There are also examples of colleges and universities in which worthwhile efforts to save money or to launch innovative educational programs have been delayed for long periods or completely stalled by interminable debates and procedural delays on the part of faculty senates.

In a country with 4,500 colleges and universities, however, it is hazardous to reach conclusions about governance by citing problems on a handful of campuses. A broader and more careful inquiry is required. As it happens, such empirical evidence as exists suggests that both the familiar criticisms of the administration and those of disaffected faculty are highly exaggerated. Instead, there are other weaknesses in shared governance that are more important and need to be corrected if colleges and universities are to succeed in meeting the needs and expectations of society.

According to one of the few large surveys on shared governance, 62 percent of top administrators consider their relations with the faculty to be “cooperative,” while only 2.9 percent regard them as “suspicious and adversarial.” Professors are admittedly more skeptical; one in five feels that “the faculty is typically at odds with the administration,” and only 17 percent believe that the faculty “has a great deal to say” about institutional affairs. But most professors have limited first-hand experience in college and university governance and pay little attention to it. Those who do play an active part have a much more favorable view. Only 9 percent of these professors feel that relations with the administration are “suspicious and adversarial.”

In another, more recent survey, “unresponsive governance procedures” proved to be well down the list of “things [that are] most frustrating” to college and university presidents. On a list of 17 common aggravations, governance ranked 12th for community college presidents, ninth for comprehensive university leaders, 14th for heads of public doctoral institution, and sixth for those who preside over private doctoral universities. Similarly, although boards of trustees have attracted a fair amount of criticism recently, comprehensive surveys show that relations with the board never rise very high on a list of 17 things that frustrate the heads of different categories of colleges and universities. Even among the presidents of public doctoral universities, boards of trustees rank only eighth on the list of frustrations.

As for professors, whereas most of those who publicly complain about the current state of governance believe that faculty influence has declined in recent decades, the best available evidence suggests quite the contrary. In two large surveys of professors asking identical questions about governance in 1970 and again in 2001, the results indicated that faculty influence had in fact increased substantially over this period—most obviously in matters of teaching, curriculum, and faculty appointments, but even with respect to such sensitive questions as choosing deans and setting salary scales.

In short, as Gabriel Kaplan, who conducted a survey of higher education governance, concluded in Governing Academia (Cornell University Press, 2004):

Despite much concern among both faculty and observers of higher education about the state of shared governance, the data collected here depict an image neither as cumbersome and unloved as some critics seem to believe, nor as threatened or supplanted as some advocates seem to fear. Faculty seem to have a role in governance in many institutions and their participation appears to be valued. Few administrators suggested that faculty participation presented a significant obstacle to effective governance.

That favorable assessment, however, hardly proves that the practice of shared governance is free of difficulties. On the contrary, the conventional attacks on governance have diverted attention from other problems that are more important. A close look at the record suggests that each of the parties involved in campus governance, including boards of trustees, has evident shortcomings that need to be remedied if higher education is to perform well over the next generation.

One essential part of any careful assessment of campus governance is how well it has responded to the most important challenges facing colleges and universities. There is little doubt in the case of higher education today what those challenges are. Two problems loom larger than any others. The first is to raise graduation rates in order to help achieve President Obama’s goal of increasing the percentage of younger Americans with some sort of college degree. Over the past few decades, graduation rates of colleges have risen so slowly that the United States has fallen behind a dozen or more nations in the educational attainment of its citizens. This trend has contributed to greater income inequality, slowed economic growth, and deprived millions of young people of the opportunity to realize their ambitions for a better job.

The second major challenge involves the quality of undergraduate education. Several investigators have found that students are making less progress in college than most people have assumed in developing basic skills of critical thinking, writing, and problem-solving—skills that contribute much more to economic growth than merely getting a diploma. According to one influential study, a substantial group of undergraduates, approximately one-third, make no significant progress at all in developing these skills, while the majority improve only slightly. That troubling conclusion is buttressed by evidence that the time undergraduates spend studying for class has shrunk by an alarming 40 percent since the early 1960s. Since time spent on coursework is the single thing students do that most affects their grade-point average, future earnings, and likelihood of being employed, the decades-long decline in studying represents a serious problem.

Raising graduation rates and improving the progress students make in college are difficult tasks in themselves. Yet colleges and universities will need to address them at a time when money for higher education promises to be very tight. State governments have been hard-pressed to fund other programs and have been cutting per-student support for a decade. The federal government is likewise under heavy pressure to reduce its large budget deficits. Charitable contributions can hardly take up the slack, while tuitions have already been increasing at seemingly unsustainable rates. In such a chilly fiscal environment, graduating much larger numbers of students while simultaneously improving the quality of teaching and learning will be a formidable undertaking indeed.

The problems that I’ve just described are not new. Graduation rates have been stagnant for many years. Student effort has been declining for more than four decades. While the underlying causes are not all within the power of educators to correct, there is reason to believe that colleges could have done much more than they have to overcome them. If one compares the graduation rates of colleges with student bodies of roughly similar academic ability, some institutions regularly do far better than the others. Moreover, those that do better seem to have adopted a set of policies and practices—such as fewer courses and clearly structured programs combined with better advising and job placement services—that many low performing colleges could adopt as well.

There is similar evidence of neglect in improving the quality of education. How else can one explain the widespread grade inflation throughout the very decades when the time students spent studying declined? Why have graduate schools done so little for so long to prepare future faculty members for their responsibilities as teachers and educators? And why is lecturing still the most common form of college teaching despite its well-known inadequacies in helping students develop the very habits of critical thinking and analysis that faculty members themselves regard as the most important goals of undergraduate education?

The persistent failure of so many institutions to do more to address the major problems facing higher education today seems to suggest a weakness in the governance of many colleges and universities. While responsibility for this neglect rests primarily with academic leaders and their faculties, boards must surely accept some of the blame. Granted, board members are rarely knowledgeable enough to decide questions of teaching methods and curriculum. Still, they do have legitimate ways to influence the priority the administration attaches to academic reform and the amount of time and effort that campus leaders devote to the subject.

One of the principal duties of a board is to play an active part in determining the goals and priorities of the college or university. In fulfilling that responsibility, board members can work with the administration to determine whether such academic matters as graduation rates and the quality of undergraduate education present genuine problems on their campus that call for a determined effort to improve.

Yet few boards have been notably successful in helping to shape the goals and priorities of their institution. All too often, board members have acquiesced in a vision of the future that concentrates on expansion, on tangible objectives such as new buildings and new degree programs. Above all, they have focused on a conventional view of progress that attaches more importance to raising the SAT scores of entering students than to increasing what they learn after they enroll—a view that pays less attention to improving the quality of what their institution already does than it does to climbing the ladder of conventional prestige by turning community colleges into four-year institutions, four-year colleges into comprehensive universities offering a variety of masters and professional doctoral degrees, and comprehensive institutions into research universities. This view of progress, while sometimes justified, has spawned a whole series of expensive misadventures, including the creation of mediocre doctoral programs, costly efforts to improve the university’s “research profile,” and massive diversions of funds from need-based to merit scholarships.

Despite this record, some college presidents will resist any notion of trying to improve the choice of institutional goals by increasing the role of the board. To them, the selection of goals and priorities is a matter best left to the administration and faculty. The proper function of boards is simply to review and approve recommendations on these subjects if and when the president decides to submit them for inspection.

Experience plainly suggests the inadequacy of that approach. The fact that both the problem of sluggish graduation rates and the decline in student effort have persisted over a period of four decades suggests that leaving the identification of major academic issues to the faculty and the president does not ensure prompt attention to issues that really matter. Rather, recent surveys of top campus officials indicate a widespread complacency about academic issues. Polls of college presidents reveal that academic affairs rank far down the list of presidential concerns while occupying less time in the average work-week than budgets, fundraising, administrative chores, and representing the institution to various outside groups. At the same time, the chief academic officers to whom presidents have entrusted responsibility over academic matters display a disturbing tendency to feel satisfied about the quality of education in their institution and to dismiss issues such as grade inflation as genuine problems for the rest of higher education but not for their own college. Thus, only 16.5 percent of these officials felt that academic rigor had declined on their own campus, while 72 percent agreed that issues of quality and rigor “pose real problems elsewhere in American higher education.”

There are reasons for the tendencies that I’ve just described. As colleges and universities compete to raise money and attract academically talented students, their leaders are naturally inclined to make great efforts to improve the image of their institution. The recent growth in public-relations staff on most campuses bears witness to this preoccupation. Presidents preoccupied with enhancing their institution’s reputation become accustomed to accentuating the positive. After constantly proclaiming the virtues of their college or university to every interested constituency, they come to believe the picture they are portraying and to regard the academic condition of their campus in an excessively positive light.

Faculties have reasons of their own for wishing to avoid recognizing problems that would require major changes in existing academic programs. They are typically busy with their own work. As more and more colleges and universities insist that their professors publish, and as the rapid growth of adjunct instructors reduces the number of tenured faculty charged with carrying out the same array of administrative chores, the average work-week of professors has grown longer and more crowded. Under such conditions, faculties naturally feel less inclined to look with favor on reforms that would take a lot of time to discuss and implement.

In short, if colleges and universities are to attend properly to major educational issues and priorities, boards of trustees will need to assume responsibility for making sure that reliable evidence is obtained and considered objectively to determine whether significant academic problems exist that require attention. In the case of graduation rates, this responsibility entails asking the administration to collect evidence comparing their college’s graduation rates with those of other colleges that have student bodies with similar backgrounds and academic abilities. Comprehensive studies that have made such comparisons reveal large differences between high-performing and average and below-average colleges. Such findings suggest that many institutions are graduating far fewer students than they should. In most cases, this condition has persisted for many years without vigorous efforts to improve matters.

Evaluating the condition of a college’s academic program is more difficult, since wholly satisfactory measures of quality do not exist. Nevertheless, some instruments do exist that can help in making such an appraisal and providing a baseline for judging future progress.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) annually collects from the students of several hundred colleges evidence on the extent to which each participating institution engages in educational practices that have been shown to be effective. The results are not made public, but each participating college can see how it compares with benchmark institutions in employing the recommended practices. In addition, the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) is a test that has been given to freshmen and seniors on several hundred campuses to reveal how much progress undergraduates make over their four years in basic cognitive skills such as critical thinking, writing, and analytic reasoning. Created with the help of a large panel of professors, this instrument has the virtue of not being merely a short-answer test, but rather an essay exam in which students receive a body of evidence and are asked to compose a response of several paragraphs analyzing a practical problem and recommending a solution.

Instruments of the kind I’ve just described may not be perfect. Still, they provide a reasonable basis for deciding whether problems exist concerning graduation rates or the quality of education that are serious enough to warrant serious efforts to bring about improvement. In all likelihood, the results will show that a large majority of colleges need to raise their completion rates and improve their educational programs. Studies of graduation rates from many institutions reveal that most colleges fall well below the top 10 or 20 percent of colleges with comparable student bodies. Similar differences occur in the results from surveys and tests of educational quality. Moreover, investigations into the time students spend studying find that there is little difference between elite, highly selective colleges and other institutions. Throughout higher education, the differences in the amount of studying and in academic progress are far greater among students within the same institution than they are among different institutions, thus suggesting that there is considerable room for improvement on the vast majority of campuses.

Once board members decide that genuine shortcomings exist, there is much that they can and should do, consistent with their limited role, to ensure that the administration and the faculty devote careful attention to the issues. To begin with, they can try to persuade the president that action is needed. When the president has been closely involved in gathering and evaluating the evidence, this task should normally be easy. If the board has made its analysis as a prelude to the search for a new president, the board can include these academic issues among the criteria used in deciding whom to appoint while making clear to candidates that these weaknesses are matters they would like the new president to address.

Thereafter, board members can take care to place academic issues on the agenda periodically and make sure that the board is supplied with adequate data to determine how much progress is being made. More important, they can assure presidents of their support when they take up the issue with the faculty and begin to work with them to decide on suitable steps to remedy the problem. If presidents believe that they will be acting alone in addressing sensitive academic issues, they may fear that faculty members will be resentful, express their disagreement openly, and perhaps cause adverse publicity that may raise questions in many minds about the leadership of the institution. These risks may discourage presidents from even raising important academic questions and trying to bring about reform. On the other hand, if presidents know that their board members are solidly behind them in addressing academic problems, they will be more willing to proceed, and the faculty will be more likely to take the issues seriously.

What the board should not do, of course, is to take it on themselves to decide upon the particular steps that should be taken to increase graduation rates or improve the quality of education. Clearly, board members normally lack the background and knowledge to make such decisions. Their responsibility is not to impose solutions but first to work with the president to decide whether there are problems with graduation rates and educational quality that need attention and then to assure themselves that conscientious efforts are made to address those issues. If presidents refuse to act or proceed half-heartedly or ineptly, boards may eventually have to replace them. But only capable academic leaders working closely with their faculties can decide on appropriate corrective measures and implement them effectively.

This division of responsibilities is admittedly easier to put on paper than to put into practice. Deciding whether presidents have acted competently or ineptly or whether their efforts at reform have been conscientious or half-hearted can easily slip into judgments that the president has failed to support the particular reforms that board members happen to favor. To guard against mistakes of this kind, it may be wise to try to persuade state governors to appoint a small nucleus of members to the board with extensive academic experience who will be better able to guard against inappropriately intrusive actions that cross the fuzzy line between oversight and management.

Even if boards do a better job of helping to identify serious academic problems and putting them prominently on the agenda, there is no guarantee of a successful conclusion. Granting a million more college degrees will mean successfully educating large new cohorts of students, many of whom will arrive on campus lacking the preparation and skills to do college work. Increasing student engagement and improving learning will be a difficult feat in an era when so many enterprising producers of TV shows, computer games, and social media devices are devoting much money and effort to securing a larger share of young people’s time and attention.

At the same time, it is also true that there has rarely been a time with such abundant opportunities for improving the quality of undergraduate education and strengthening its capacity to engage student interest and commitment. We now know a great deal more than was once the case about student motivation and how people learn. Abundant research has accumulated comparing the effectiveness of different methods of instruction. Technology is producing an array of new techniques that can make education more effective and interesting. Colleges will never succeed in exploiting these possibilities successfully without the dedicated effort of presidents and their faculties. But without an active and enlightened board of trustees to put these matters on the agenda, many colleges may not even make a serious attempt.

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