Association Education Topic: Shared Governance

In higher education, faculty and administrators often come into conflict over shared governance: faculty demand shared governance at their organization, and administrators counter that the organization already HAS shared governance. The faculty feel ignored and gaslit; the administration feels frustrated and unappreciated. The surprising reality is that in these conversations, both parties are usually acting with honesty and good faith. How can that be? Because “shared governance” is a term with many different definitions – all reasonable, and all in conflict with each other.

In his 2003 book Improving Faculty Governance, Michael Miller presents the “ladder of faculty involvement in shared governance.” It lays out eight distinct levels of faculty involvement in a college’s operations:

In our careers, faculty typically experience examples of each rung of this ladder. Here are the definitions for each of these category titles:

No Faculty Involvement:

1. Manipulation: in this category administrators disguise their complete lack of shared governance through trickery. Operationally, Manipulation can take many forms, including simple flattery and positive speech, dangling the prospect of a future reward, or generating an atmosphere of artificial crisis to justify the need to “temporarily suspend” shared governance.

2. Therapy: after making a decision, the administrator allows unhappy faculty to express their dissatisfaction, often through something like an “open door policy.” The administrator may listen intently and even offer up statements of sympathy and understanding for the faculty member’s position, but the faculty member’s impromptu therapy session does not affect the decision itself.

Minimal Faculty Involvement:

3. Informing: administrators share their finalized decisions with the faculty before the decisions get implemented. Faculty still have no input, but at least have access to the information in advance.

4. Consultation: prior to making the decision, administrators seek faculty input about the decision. The faculty input is non-binding, and administrators still retain complete decision-making authority.

5. Placation: after an unpopular or unwise decision, loud and persistent faculty complaints can cause the administrators to alter their decision in response. (Note: although this scenario is deeply unpleasant – infantilizing the faculty and establishing an adversarial relationship – it actually represents a non-trivial level of shared governance, since faculty can sway decisions through the power of their obnoxiousness.)

Full Faculty Involvement:

6. Partnership: decisions are jointly made by faculty and administration, often implemented through a consensus-based model where both sides must support the decision in order for it to proceed.

7. Delegated Power: administration technically has the decision-making authority but chooses to pass that authority over to the faculty.

8. Faculty Control: the decision-making authority inherently rests with the faculty, not the administration.

Discussions between faculty and administration about shared governance often suffer from a lack of specificity about the different definitions of the concept. When faculty demand shared governance only to be told by administration that the college already has it, this ladder often holds the explanation for the disconnect: implicitly, the faculty and the administrators are each envisioning a different rung on the ladder. Only by understanding this nuance of the topic can we have meaningful discussions that allow us to resolve this issue.

The question everyone wants to answer – the question every college needs to answer – is: which rung of the ladder of shared governance is the one we should adopt? Faculty often think the most appropriate type of shared governance for their institution is level 6 (Partnership). Meanwhile, administrators are often most comfortable with shared governance sitting at level 4 (Consultation). In reality, both of these positions are incorrect! Running a college involves making countless decisions on a wide array of topics, and the appropriate level of faculty involvement in those decisions will vary based on the topic. For example:

  • No shared governance is appropriate on issues unrelated to teaching and to student life (e.g., “when should we overseed the lawns with winter grass?”)
  • Informing (level 3) is sufficient faculty involvement on matters related to students but where faculty input isn’t vital (e.g., “which Governing Board member will we invite to our Graduation ceremony?”)
  • Colleges should use Consultation (level 4) for matters where faculty input may be valuable, but the decision has minimal impact on the classroom (e.g., “which vendor should we select to sell textbooks at our bookstore?”)
  • Colleges that appropriately embrace the concept of faculty involvement usually adopt partnership (level 6) as the default level of shared governance. This consensus-based decision making would apply to most matters of significance to the college experience (e.g., “who should be the graduation speaker this year?”)
  • Delegated Power (level 7) makes sense where faculty have specific expertise and the decision has a large impact on faculty (e.g., “which candidate should we hire as our new Biology instructor?”)
  • Colleges should always use Faculty Control (level 8) to decide matters of academic freedom (e.g., “what should be the course level objectives for CIS 105?”) 

Nuanced topics require nuanced discussions, and questions about the decision-making processes for the college deserve that nuance. The next time you see a shared governance conversation between faculty and administration, with no common ground in sight and with frustration levels on the rise, remember the ladder of shared governance and ask the question: is this actually a disagreement about the concept itself, or are we just using different definitions for the same term? Broaching that subject might be enough to bridge the gulf between the two sides and get the conversation back to productive territory.