Leading the Charge: The Faculty’s Role in Governance

In a conversation with a newly retired and highly respected college president late last week, the conversation turned to the growing problem of how to govern American colleges and universities in uncertain times.

American higher education operates on a system of shared governance. It is often presented as a 3-leg stool with each leg balancing the other to keep the stool strong and stable.

Our conversation raised an interesting issue. A president most typically enjoys a tenure of about six years. Students have a relationship with their institution that varies from four to six years. The involvement of parents corresponds to the length of time that it takes their children to graduate.  Staff turnover and changes in administrative leadership limits their influence over time.

When measuring stability at higher education institutions – especially from a policy perspective – there are only two groups whose members deal first hand with the institution over the long-term.

The first group is the most senior alumni leadership on the board of trustees. There are many examples of colleges where policy improved measurably because of the impact made by dedicated alumni trustees. Alumni trustees have long memories and a “cradle through career” relationship with their alma mater. When it works well, the institution becomes a stronger place.

Yet alumni trustees are part-time volunteers. They rely heavily upon data and perception provided by the president and senior staff.  The virtue of having served so long is also a drawback encouraging some alumni trustees to look at the college as they remember it rather than identifying the opportunities ahead in an uncertain future.

Further, the worst alumni trustees adopt a plantation mindset. Some alumni trustees instruct presidents repeatedly in closed sessions that this is “their’ institution; therefore, they know best. This approach limits perspective, especially from younger trustees, non-alumni board members, and presidents attracted from beyond alumni ranks. In this case, alumni trustees become a problem even though they are often unaware of it.  They seldom know when to get off the stage.

The only other group that provides stability in a shared governance setting characterized by part-time volunteers and changing administrative leadership is the faculty.

Within shared governance, the most important role faculty play is to safeguard, nurture and promote the academic program. In a highly competitive industry characterized by collapsing economic models and hyper attention to “bread and circus” distractions like big-time athletics – despite their obvious advantages – the faculty set the institutional course. The best of them understand this role and concentrate their energies to build great academic programs.

The truth is, however, that the role of faculty and shared governance is sometimes a blurred line. Since everything connects however tenuously to the academic program, faculty sometimes feel empowered to influence every administrative and policy decision. The worst faculties rely far too heavily on process, albeit a natural outgrowth of shared decision-making.  It becomes more important for them to win the debate or extract concessions than to advance a common agenda.

They also operate under antiquated rules of engagement. Traditional faculties have a governance review cycle that begins in September and ends in April despite the fact that American higher education operates on a 12-month cycle. A few also permit their most extreme and loudest colleagues far too much say, typically out of the sense of deference or because they do not wish the guns to be turned on to themselves.

Setting aside these obvious limitations, however, the best and greatest hope to manage change as learning intersects with technology, workforce needs, and an educated citizenry is the faculty.  At its most fundamental, the question is not a political one – conservative or liberal – but even more systemic. What is the role of higher education faculty in governance in the years ahead?

The situation has become serious enough that American colleges and universities must steadily build faculties that are neither narrowly political nor resistant to change. The new American faculty must lead the charge on innovation.

They are perfectly positioned to do so. Who better to demonstrate creativity – and a sense of entrepreneurship – than the faculty who teach the concept? Who better to advance the higher education agenda than the group that has served the longest and is charged historically as the keeper of the flame?

If the faculty is to take a seat at the governance table in the 21st-century, its leadership must look to what matters most. It’s not a question of what’s best for them. The question is a far more important one.

To answer this question, faculty leadership must focus on their core responsibility – nurturing the academic program. They must build a case – program by program – and connect these programs into a coherent vision of what education is, how it should be conveyed, and under what terms it must be assessed.

To take the seat at the governance table in the 21st century, American higher education must develop faculties that teach locally but think globally. The faculty must see the world beyond the college gates. They must seek partnerships with trustees and the administration to build upon tradition, anticipate resources, and help envision a world that brings what they do into sharper relevance.

As collegiate governance teeters toward uncertain reform, the faculty is uniquely situated to reclaim the academic program from the chaos caused by an erosion of trust, rapid change, politicization, and indifference. The great tragedy will be if faculty leadership fails to understand that they need to step forward–now.

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