Who’s in charge here anyway?

The other day, I was a guest in a class on higher education administration. Because I was the last in a distinguished list of guests to the class, the subject left unexamined was “the challenges and opportunities of academic governance.” Seems simple enough; not so.

Academic governance sometimes gets mapped onto faculty governance, though they are not the same thing. Faculty governance is the realm of delegated authority from the university’s governing board, in W&M’s case the gubernatorially appointed Board of Visitors. This authority is delegated to the faculty via the president, the provost, and the deans. Such decisions as hiring, promotion, and tenure of faculty, the curriculum, academic status of students, and the criteria for, as well as the approval of, earned degrees are in this realm. In any great university, these matters are the near-exclusive prerogative of the faculty and the faculty jealously guard and safeguard these rights and privileges. These are serious matters of great substance; they define the university’s standards and, ultimately, determine who may call themselves faculty, student, or graduate.

Academic governance is more complex, refering to shared governance among the faculty, administration, students, governing board, and intensely interested parties like alumni, donors, parents, volunteers, and politicians. It holds that academic institutions are not mini-totalitarian or rogue states wherein individuals can act unilaterally without broad consultation. Herein lies the potential for conflict and tension: who really sets the institution’s priorities; who distributes the rewards; who gets to articulate the institution’s core values; who decides what?

I guess the answer to that latter question is that in the academic shared governance model at some level everyone gets to decide – or at least participate in the decision-making to some degree. We may decide that we don’t agree, but we do reach a decision. The art in this is to apply a reasonable filter as to which decisions require a shared process for action and which decisions can we agree should be made independently, though with accountability, within the context of mutually determined basic principles?

Embedded in shared governance are two key facts: 1) transparency of decision-making so that everyone knows when decisions are being made, on the basis of what information, and by whom and 2) trust in the fact that procedures will be followed and that aggrieved parties with standing may challenge a decision without retribution.

Transparency and trust enable shared governance. The first is hard work, adds time to decision-making, and requires constant attention. It is almost always worth the effort. The latter, trust, is earned not given. It is ephemeral and delicate.

In my experience, shared governance fails by either intention or inattention. I think of these failures in the words of Willa Cather, “[t]here are only two or three great human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.” Substitute “failure in shared governance” for “great human stories” and you have the crux of the matter.

But, we can learn more from our failures than we do from our successes.

Categories: Academics, Faculty & Staff Blogs

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