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Shared Governance

04 Aug Posted by in Faculty, Policies | 9 comments
Shared Governance

We’re having a somewhat unexpected (to me) conversation with our governing board (Board of Visitors) about shared governance. It’s no secret that the Board, like most Boards, does not have a lot of academic background, and the strange ways that universities lurch along are not fully familiar to them. In the case of shared governance, it seems that several Board members want a clearer identification of their own sovereign authority and a clearer indication of overall hierarchy. I think the resultant conversation will prove manageable—no one is itching for a fight—but it does raise some interesting issues.

The topic came up as a result of our recent presidential search process, which did not go exactly as our Faculty Handbook stipulated. The Handbook had specified that final candidates should come to campus for an open interview. In fact, given the reluctance of several top candidates to be publicly identified, the interview process was considerably less open than this. The result inevitably opened questions about appropriate ex post facto revisions of our Faculty Handbook, and an accompanying interest in distinguishing between Handbook items that are contractual—as in faculty employment matters—and those that are advisory. And this in turn opened the shared governance discussion.

I hope that the result will in essence confirm a governance understanding not too different from what we’ve long assumed. To wit: our governing board is indeed sovereign, though the sovereignty is already qualified by potential legislative intervention and, even more important, by accreditation standards (which already complicate lines of authority). But sovereignty is to be exercised prudently, and in important areas a prudent board in turn normally concedes authority to the faculty, working with appropriate administrative personnel. Thus de jure, a board could intervene in individual tenure decisions. But de facto this would be really unwise, and shared governance continues to operate. Or: de jure, a board could intervene on curricular issues, but de facto shared governance is a much better basis both for good decisions and for decisions that will enlist faculty enthusiasm. Once in a while, of course, the de facto state of affairs may be disrupted by some excess by one of the parties involved. And there are some issues on which de facto compromises on sovereignty may not work.

Mostly, though, we have a governance structure that actually works all right, even if it’s hard to codify in precise legalese. As indicated, I hope that our further discussions will recognize the validity of a certain degree of messiness. We’ll see.