What is Shared Governance Anyway?

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[Excerpt from “What is Shared Governance Anyway?” Scholtz, Greg. 2007. Read the full essay here.]

All too often shared governance is used to convey the idea that a lot of conversation ought to take place within and among various campus groups—board, administration, faculty, staff, students, etc.—before the people in power make the final decision. This conception might be labeled the “stakeholder” version of shared governance. All the stakeholders should have a place at the table; everybody, within reason, should be consulted. Once people have talked things over, those in charge make the final decision, presumably after having given serious consideration to the full range of opinions and recommendations. Because “input” is sought and wide communication takes place, governance is said to be shared.

This brand of shared governance, which resembles corporate quality-improvement programs like Total Quality Management (TQM), is certainly preferable to tyranny or dictatorship. In fact, on many campuses—especially those on which presidents routinely make decisions without consulting anybody—the implementation of the stakeholder understanding of shared governance would constitute a great leap forward.

By assigning primary authority in educational matters to the faculty, genuine shared governance promotes and sustains academic excellence.

Nevertheless, the stakeholder notion of shared governance falls well short of the classic conception articulated in the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities—the urtext of academic governance. (The full statement is available at http://www.aaup.org/report/1966-statement-government-colleges-and-universities.) Jointly formulated by the Association of Governing Boards of American Colleges and Universities (AGB), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the AAUP, the Statement on Government conveys a more sophisticated—and collegial—understanding of academic shared governance.

Even though the Statement on Government recognizes that final institutional authority resides ultimately in the governing board and that the board entrusts day-to-day administration to the president, it does not conceive of the college or university in starkly hierarchical terms—as a power pyramid with the president and board situated at the apex. On the contrary, it portrays the well-run institution as one in which board and president delegate decision-making power to the faculty.

What chiefly distinguishes the classic understanding of shared governance from the stakeholder variety is the idea that the faculty not only possess the right to be heard in institutional decision-making; they actually possess “primary responsibility”—or authority—for reaching decisions in their areas of expertise, namely, “curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.”

Primary responsibility also implies that faculty enjoy a certain degree of decision-making autonomy in their areas of expertise—in other words, that the administration maintains a hands-off policy when the faculty are developing recommendations in the areas of curriculum, academic policy, and appointment, reappointment, tenure, and promotion.

By assigning primary authority in educational matters to the faculty, genuine shared governance, as articulated in the Statement on Government, promotes and sustains academic excellence. It doesn’t take a doctorate in higher education to figure out why. In the plain words of one of the twentieth century’s great university presidents, “we get the best results in education and research if we leave their management to people who know something about them” (Robert Maynard Hutchins, Higher Learning in America, Yale, 1936, p. 21).

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