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How Has COVID-19 Impacted Shared Governance Models for Higher Education?

Of the thousands of industries that have been badly affected by the impact of COVID-19, higher education ranks high on the list. In the interest of safety, colleges and universities the world over have had to make drastic decisions like canceling or postponing classes, canceling international programs, switching to online courses, and in some cases, shutting down onsite classes altogether. These are many of the issues that have led to a significant decrease in enrollment, which has been shrinking at record levels. What’s more, colleges and universities have struggled to retain state and private funding. There is even greater concern about the prospect of future funding.

From the students’ perspective, college-age adults today are spending more time weighing their career options than they have in the past. They’re beginning to weigh the cost of student loans against the availability of job prospects. Adding to their decisions is the disappointment of not being able to enjoy the whole college experience because of the limitations placed on students due to COVID-19.

When you put it all together, it paints a clear view of the serious issues that college boards are facing that could affect the viability of their institution’s future. The impact of COVID-19 requires a swift, boots-on-the-ground response from administrators—decisions they can’t often make without the approval of the board. Obviously, board decisions take time and that’s not a luxury that staff members have right now.

The current climate forces higher education boards to focus on the issue of the shared governance model and how it might serve to give administrators and staff members the authority and control to save their institutions. It’s a fair question to ask considering the current times. With that in mind, the view of shared governance is murky at best. With no clear path ahead, we can gain a bit of insight by learning from the front runners in higher education that have taken steps to give more authority to administrators and staff.

Related article: Modern Governance Approach to Better Board Decision-Making

How Do We Define Shared Governance?

In the interest of establishing some common ground, let’s see if we can drill down the definition of shared governance.

The concept of shared governance was originally introduced in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was received with mixed results. Tim Porter-O’Grady was one of the early pioneers of shared governance. In 2003, O’Grady defined shared governance as, “a structural model through which nurses can express and manage their practice with a higher level of professional autonomy.”

Since then, shared governance has become the preferred leadership model within the higher education and healthcare industries. The shared governance model outlines the process for partnership, accountability, and ownership of leadership responsibilities. With this model, the individuals that make operational decisions have the responsibility, authority, and accountability for those decisions.

To be clear, shared governance was never intended to replace or eliminate positional leadership. It shouldn’t be used to downsize the current leadership structure or utilise it as a form of self-governance. Regardless of how much authority the board delegates to the staff, it doesn’t abdicate them of their own leadership responsibilities.

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How Does Shared Governance Differ from Participatory Management Model of Governance?

With a shared governance perspective, the board gives delegates the responsibility, authority, and accountability to the staff to determine which goals to pursue. During these challenging times, shared governance is a model that ensures that decisions are being made by the people serving on the front lines—the very people who have to adjust and adapt to changing circumstances every day.

Unlike a participatory leadership model where the staff is required to get input from colleagues and others, a shared governance model decentralises decision making, allowing staff to make decisions based upon guidelines given to them by the board.

Related article: Compliance vs Risk Management: What’s the Difference and Why Should Boards Care?

Learning About Shared Governance in the Real World

Best practices for good governance generally arise out of trial and error from real-world experiences. We’re starting to see some of that as universities are scrambling to adjust to some of the steepest challenges they’ve faced in the history of their organisations.

For example, Radford University in Virginia was facing cuts between $5 and $20 million in their budget due to a steep drop in enrollment after the onset of COVID-19. In an unprecedented move, the school’s board of trustees passed a resolution in June of 2020 that gave the university’s president the authority to cut the budget as he saw fit to address COVID-related challenges. This decision raised eyebrows among the faculty senate and the American Association of Realtors, both of which condemned the resolution on the grounds that it fundamentally violated the principles of academic freedom which are protected by tenure and shared governance. Both groups were ultimately concerned that this decision would risk damaging the integrity of the university.

What’s more, the decision could overrule the guidelines that allowed the president to form an ad hoc committee with the power to appeal to the governing board if the committee and the president didn’t agree on appropriate decisions. Considering that about half of Radford University’s trustees (formally called the Board of Visitors) are business leaders rather than members of academia, the decision seemed reasonable considering the need to make timely decisions under the current circumstances.

While it all makes sense on the surface, long-standing principles related to the commonly accepted shared governance model conflict with Radford’s decision. in 1966, The American Council on Education, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the AAUP outlined a model of shared governance or higher education institutions which has become the accepted industry standard.

The shared governance model calls for universities to share responsibility between the different components of institutional governance and sets specific areas of responsibility for governing boards, administrations, and faculties. The founders of the shared governance model are considering whether Radford’s decision is considered a violation of these principles.

In recent months, experts and authorities are exploring whether the shared model of governance is outdated and flawed in light of the current climate. At the same time, the AAUP stated they believe shared governance is more important now than ever before because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps the most important thing that’s come to light is the disparity in how leadership within the higher education industry defines and implements the shared governance model. To that end, board orientations don’t always include a definition of the roles of faculty as it pertains to governance and decision making, which adds to the confusion.

At present, there are no hard and fast rules about how boards and trustees should properly implement or adapt to a shared governance model. What we do know is that it’s vital for boards to document their decisions and the decision-making process they used to back them up. BoardEffect’s board portal system was designed for just such a purpose. A highly secure board management system is the most appropriate platform for documenting a communication trail that supports the board’s actions and decisions around shared governance principles. It provides a collaborative space where everyone involved in shared governance can be clear on the structures, processes, and outcomes that each party has responsibility for. The time that your board spends on defining shared governance principles and adapting them to the current environment is time that’s well spent. Your board portal will help support your board as it makes these difficult, vital decisions.


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