What Ever Happened to Shared Governance? Twenty-First Century Challenges Are Threatening a Bastion of Faculty Power and Pride

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THE IDEA THAT FACULTY MEMBERS are uniquely qualified to determine the direction, standards, and practices of the institutions at which they teach and do research has been a tenet in higher education. At many colleges and universities, the faculty has almost sole responsibility for hiring, promoting, and granting tenure to its own.

Formal faculty input can extend farther than that to such areas as new academic programs, expansion plans, and building uses, all part of the time-honored practice of "shared governance." That kind of involvement by professors has been seen by many as a natural extension of their academic mission, and it began on some American campuses as early as the 19th century, according to Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors.

Nelson is concerned, though, that meaningful shared governance is becoming an endangered species, so much so that he organized a three-day AAUP conference in Washington last Fall to address the problem. "I think shared governance has been in crisis," Nelson explains.

That view would seem to be at odds with a study released last year by the Association of Governing Boards in Washington, D.C. A full 90 percent of the colleges and universities surveyed reported having a faculty governing body--usually a faculty senate entrusted with communicating ideas and concerns to the administration--and 59 percent of responding institutions described the faculty bodies as "policy influencing," even though institutions report that they are mainly advisory.

A number of schools around the country have in fact become known for effective shared governance practices, from the University of Cincinnati--in which the faculty is actively involved in collective bargaining, strategic planning, and infrastructure management--to American University (D.C.), which has made strides over the past decade to gain nonvoting representation on the school's board of trustees and to give term faculty more of a voice in the faculty senate and in university issues.

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Last June, the AAUP, which presents an annual shared governance award, recognized Georgia Perimeter College and its president, Anthony Tricoli, for including faculty leaders as voting members of the president's cabinet and the president's policy advisory board. Georgia Perimeter faculty members also serve on ad hoc task teams to address short-term issues affecting the school.

But other recently published research suggests that faculty influence is not what it once was. In their book, The Still Divided Academy: How Competing Visions of Power, Politics, and Diversity Complicate the Mission Higher Education (Roman & Littlefield Publishers, 2010), which surveyed more than 4,000 administrators, faculty, and students at four-year institutions--husband and wife Matthew and April Woessner write that only 17 percent of professors thought they had "a great deal of say" in college governance. (The number was considerably higher at schools granting only bachelors degrees--39 percent--than at doctoral-granting institutions--13 percent.) Another 47 percent acknowledged having "some say."

Their experience is echoed by faculty and administration leaders who admit that the landscape for shared governance has changed over the past 20 years, along with the backgrounds of university administrators, the role of non-faculty constituencies, and the impact of the troubled economy and new legislation.

A Turbulent 2011

The past year dealt some sharp blows to the working relationship of faculty members and their administrators. Controversial new laws passed in Wisconsin and Ohio greatly curtailed the collective bargaining rights of all public employees, including university professors, who marched in protest this past February and excoriated their respective presidents for endorsing the changes. (See "Discord in Wisconsin and Ohio," page 32). …