Making University Shared Governance Work

Dan L KingDr. Dan King is President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Association of University Administrators. He has worked as a provost, academic vice president, dean, and education faculty member in a variety of institutional types, from community college through land-grant research university. Dan serves on the Edu Alliance Advisory Council

While clutched fiercely in many American colleges and universities, shared governance is—at best—an ill-defined concept, with probably as many meanings as there are institutions and individuals, which cling to its principles. No matter what meaning one attaches to shared governance, it is almost always used to refer to some degree of consultation between faculty and administration in some (or many) aspects of the institution’s day-to-day operations. In some places this sharing is considerable, in others, it is quite limited.

Whenever college/university institutional governance is shared, this sharing represents a real and sometimes powerful localized political process. As is the case with virtually every political process, competing positions—sometimes polar opposite competing positions—rule the day. For example, faculty often suggest that they are the voice of principal, and their role in governance is to ensure that the administration’s more pragmatic position is always balanced by principle.   Just as we see in our daily lives outside of academe, in higher education all politics are personal; all politics are local. Thus, it should come as no surprise to see the most liberal-principled faculty member becomes ultra-conservative when his/her department is threatened. This is not to suggest that college and university administrators are “the constantly dependable voice of reason” … they are not. It does appear that in general reasonable-acting administrators do more often take a broader perspective on institutional needs and priorities; this appears to be even truer as one observes administrators at each higher echelon level. If it is so that as a group, administrators do more quickly and more fully embrace institutional change, how then can administrators more effectively work with their faculty colleagues with whom they are sharing in the governing of the institution?

First, administrators—department chair through president—should embrace and work within the recognized political realities of shared governance. We must remember that all politics—and getting others to agree with our positions in an exercise in politics—are personal.

We have an effective model: No matter how one feels about President Lyndon Johnson’s overall presidential leadership, it is unarguable that he was a masterful politician. From his behaviors as Senate Leader, we can observe the importance of developing personal relationships. Johnson learned and remembered everyone’s name; he learned about and remembered—or kept notes to help him remember—things that were important in the lives of others. Then, whenever he encountered someone who might be either a political friend or foe, he demonstrated the importance of their relationship by recalling information to personalize the relationship. He remembered birthdays and anniversaries. He called at times other than when he wanted something. College and university administrators can do the same thing.

Know the names of your colleagues; not just the ones you encounter day-to-day, not just the ones that work directly under or over you in the organizational chart, but colleagues who are two or three steps removed. Know the names of your colleagues’ spouses or significant others and their children; ask about their interests. (If necessary, keep notes for yourself so you can follow up to demonstrate that your most recent past visit was significant.) Send email birthday wishes. Stop by other people’s offices; don’t always have them come to you. When you are talking with them, use behaviors that communicate how important they are to you; eye contact and affirming body language are important. Remember, politics are personal; being a good and interested communicator is making an investment in tomorrow’s deliberation.

Actually, the personal side of institutional politics is the easy part. It’s the local perspective that presents the greatest challenge. The local perspective is often characterized by a reluctance to change, sometimes accompanied by the comment, “That is not how we do it here.” Overcoming the inertia of the local perspective is sometimes very difficult. One strategy that helps is to ensure that the greatest number of personnel is exposed to organizational ideas beyond their institution.

Typically presidents and vice presidents are exposed to new organizational ideas. There are journals and professional magazines, websites and blogs, and a wide array of professional meetings that provide exposure to new ideas. With each lower level in the administrative hierarchy fewer personnel avail themselves of these opportunities.

The professional development of academic chairs is an example of a group at a lower level of administrative hierarchy. (In fact, many chairs do not see themselves as administrators at all.) Given that many chairs leave departmental leadership after a few years to return to full-time faculty responsibilities, an investment in the development of an appreciation of an administrative perspective is a good investment in potential future allies within the shared governance system.

Department chairs typically focus their professional development on their discipline. If a goal is to gain a broader institutional perspective that might later translate into acceptance of institution-wide need for change, higher echelon administrators should look to expand the professional development perspective of department chairs to generate a less-localized perspective. One way to do this is to look at meetings of professional associations and to have personnel attend meetings that they would not otherwise typically attend. Here are three examples:

  • Typically, presidents and academic vice presidents attend the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. Sponsoring the attendance of a dean or academic department chair annually exposes those individuals to an array of stimulating and challenging presentations on the changing landscape of higher education.
  • The Academic Affairs Summer Institute of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities is designed for academic vice presidents. Department chairs can acquire a broadened perspective from an impressive array of speakers and sessions.
  • The Council of Independent Colleges offers large and smaller focused meetings, many of which support the development of expanded administrative perspectives.

The list of organizations and opportunities is huge. My suggestion is to look beyond the typical.

If, however, our goal is to de-localize perspectives, then participation in a meeting that broadens perspective—valuable as it may be—is not sufficient. Those experiences should be followed up on campus with some suitable form of sharing, so the message is communicated more widely. One strategy is to plan for three individuals to each attend some broadening professional meeting (different meetings, not three attending the same meeting) and then to schedule some relaxed forum where these three each share a new thought, concept, or idea acquired at the meeting. A facilitated discussion might just lead even more faculty to realize that “The way we do it,” needn’t be the only perspective.

In short, professional development opportunities offered by professionals associations can be used tactically to facilitate campus-shared governance … it just takes a bit more creative approach.

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Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.