The concept of shared governance in higher education came about during the 1960s, which was a time when colleges began to modernize many of their processes. Today, the meaning of shared governance has become distorted. It’s a complex term that members of the faculty and administration often misperceive because it means different things to different people. If you talk with various faculty members, they may tell you that they believe they are responsible for governance. The faculty may believe that the administrative role merely does all the legwork to support them. In other colleges and universities, the faculty and administrators believe that a committee makes all decisions for the college by democratic vote.
Shared governance is decision-making authority that incorporates input from staff, faculty, and sometimes special interest groups. All parties have well-defined responsibilities and, as a group, they share some form of accountability for their decisions.
What Is Shared Governance in Higher Education?
By definition, shared governance in higher education refers to the processes and structures that governing boards, faculty, professional staff, and administration use to develop policies and make decisions that affect the institution. It’s also common for colleges and universities to invite input from their students.
Governance structures in higher education vary quite a bit. A board of directors, board of governors, or board of trustees generally oversees higher education institutions, and it’s common for colleges and universities to have more than one board. Each board’s responsibilities may be similar, and one board may have the full legal responsibilities for the institution. In a shared governance model, the legal responsibilities are divided between two boards — for example, a board of governors and a board of directors.
Ideally, shared governance is characteristically collegial. All individuals and groups get a chance to contribute and have their voices and opinions heard.
The benefit of shared governance is that it taps the knowledge, wisdom, and experience of a variety of groups and people with the aim of sharing resources and identifying meaningful opportunities to help move the institution forward.
Who’s in Charge at Higher Education Institutions?
Regardless of whether it’s a public or private institution, the governing board has all legal authority. Through the board’s authority, they can delegate authority for the day-to-day operations to the college or university president. The president also has delegatory powers to give authority over certain other parts of management for the university to other officials.
A prime example of this is delegating the authority for academic personnel and programs to the provost as the chief academic officer. Over time, the system of shared governance has evolved to include more representation in decision-making in various other facets of leadership.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, a shared governance model accounts for two important concepts:
- Giving various groups of people a share in key decision-making, often through elected representation.
- Giving certain constituencies the primary responsibility for specific areas of decision-making.
The two concepts are overlapping and complementary.
For example, in the search process for an administrator, a hiring committee might consist of professors, staff and possibly students. Before colleges and universities practiced shared governance, a university official would conduct the search, recruit candidates, vet them, interview them and make the final choice all on his or her own.
The concept of sharing the responsibility for governance means that everyone involved has a role, but it doesn’t mean that everyone or every party gets to participate at every stage of decision-making. It’s more than a matter of a simple vote, and no one has complete control over the entire process.
The idea is to share some of the responsibility by delegating it to those who are closest to certain issues. For example, the board of directors may give primary (but not total) responsibility to a student senate for coming up with policies that relate to student governance. Tradition holds that faculty members traditionally have the primary responsibility over the curriculum. While faculty has the primary responsibility for curriculum, there are checks and balances in place. Any changes that the faculty deems appropriate must be approved by an accountable officer: a dean, the university provost, the president, or the board of directors.
In understanding a shared governance model as it relates to hiring faculty and administrators, various stakeholders participate in parts of the process that are well-defined. The board would appoint a search committee to evaluate the applications, make a shortlist of candidates, conduct the interviews, contact references, and choose the finalists. The final decision-maker would conduct the background checks and enter formal negotiations with the top candidate. The final decision-maker would bear the ultimate responsibility for the chosen staff’s performance, but everyone who participates in the process would have some accountability for their part in it.
Shared Governance Community College Varies by State
Each state determines the governance model of its community colleges.
Some of the state governance models for community colleges around the country include:
- State vs. local
- Elected vs. appointed
- State appointed vs. locally appointed
- Taxing authority vs. no taxing authority
- Voluntary shared governance vs. mandated shared governance
Community colleges may have some combination of the governance structures listed above. Regardless of the governance structure at the community college level, shared governance works best when the institution has a clear mission, and all groups and individuals are committed to the institution’s goals.
Promoting Unity: Shared Governance University
Regardless of whether universities are public or private, boards (which may be called the Board of Trustees, Board of Regents, or a similar title), have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure that they’re managing the institution responsibly and sustainably. Boards generally hire the president, and the president gives regular reports to the board.
You could think of shared university governance as a triad that consists of the following parts:
- The board
- The president
- The faculty
In addition to the governance triad, universities often incorporate all governance groups including student councils, staff councils, and faculty. Some universities have separate governance bodies for undergraduate and graduate students.
Students have the greatest perspective of the issues that impact them, and faculty members have the greatest perspective of the effectiveness of curricula. The recommendations that each group makes help to inform the board’s decisions. Boards can choose to accept or reject those recommendations or request additional information. By entertaining all recommendations from students, staff, and faculty, boards promote unity and a sense of shared responsibility.
Board Management Software Programs Are a Modern Approach to Governance
Shared governance is a modern approach to governing colleges and universities. Today’s colleges and universities also need a modern approach to the digital tools they use to fulfill their duties and responsibilities. BoardEffect is a board management software platform that gives university boards of directors a secure platform that lets them work smarter.
Over 180,000 users across the globe in various industries, including colleges and universities, rely on the BoardEffect platform to help them communicate and collaborate between various departments and constituencies.
BoardEffect’s platform is the perfect system for entities where multiple constituencies need to work separately and together, as in colleges and universities that operate according to shared governance principles to fulfill their organization’s mission. The system offers a feature for granular permissions whereby committee members, board members, administrators, student groups and others can only access the parts of the portal that they need to complete their work. The system can also be set up so that multiple groups can join and share information for combined decision-making. The platform makes it easy for boards to document who is responsible for specific duties and to hold them accountable.
Boards of colleges and universities often receive information that’s sensitive, highly confidential, and sometimes controversial. For this reason, BoardEffect enables colleges and universities to be intentional about the security of their settings so that they can control the level of access that they’re comfortable with and that meets their needs.
BoardEffect meets the NIST 2014 Cybersecurity Standard framework, which is the same framework that banking and financial institutions trust to ensure smooth operations and prevent intentional or accidental leaks.
Essentially, BoardEffect helps board leaders and administrators to make informed decisions, which leads to better outcomes.
In wrapping things up, true shared governance is an attempt to help college and university leaders to balance increased participation in decision-making with clear accountability. The concept of shared governance has gotten out of sync because this balance is so difficult to achieve.
Shared governance accounts for the opinions and perspectives on issues that pertain to various constituencies, while not necessarily giving them equal authority for the same. The key to shared governance is continual and clear communication efforts, which is where BoardEffect can help them shine.
BoardEffect is committed to providing the best in board meeting management and modern governance. BoardEffect’s platform is an excellent complement to a shared governance in higher education model. The two components together allow higher education institutions to prosper.
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