The COVID-19 pandemic brought a new crisis to US universities, with severe financial pressures resulting from lost tuition dollars prompting campus leaders to make dramatic changes to staffing and hiring, which has weakened shared governance to an unprecedented degree. In a March 2020 Inside Higher Ed survey, 87 percent of college presidents were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about short-term unanticipated financial challenges, with 89 percent responding similarly about their institution’s longer-term financial outlook. While the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act set aside $14 billion for higher education, most campus chief financial officers said the funding was not enough to cover deficits due to the pandemic, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. To deal with budget shortfalls, some universities announced mass layoffs, reorganized units, and inaugurated faster decision-making processes—changes that dramatically reduced shared governance. University administrators were rarely transparent about how they made such financial decisions and who was party to them. In May 2021, the governing council of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sanctioned six campuses for violating “generally accepted standards of college and university governance” in their approaches to closing programs and terminating tenured faculty. Across the nation, these conditions have created a catastrophic spiral of distrust between faculty and upper administration.
While COVID-19 may be recent, the power conflict between faculty and administrators has been increasing for decades due to factors such as declining public funding and growing reliance on wealthy donors (whose money often has strings attached), corporatization policies that emphasize short-term return on investment over educational impact, and neoliberal policies such as the preference for part-time and short-term contracts, outsourcing, and privatization of support services. Administrators see these changes as necessary to the survival of the institution, while faculty fear that they threaten the soul of the institution and the educational mission. This disconnect has led to conflict and stalemate.
However, if colleges and universities are to survive the post-pandemic period, faculty and administrators must work together to make decisions. Administrators have big-picture perspective on the financial, demographic, and political contexts shaping higher education, while faculty have invaluable knowledge about their subjects, pedagogy and curricular opportunities, and student experiences and needs. To survive and thrive, campuses need to consider both the forest and the trees—that is, the big picture of budgets and enrollment trends, as well as the lived experiences of students, faculty, and staff—when making hard decisions. That means prioritizing quality of education, ensuring equity and access, and preparing students to participate as engaged citizens in a democratic society—all of which must be enacted and modeled via shared governance practices. Robust shared governance—when, for example, it involves disabled students, faculty, and staff in campus infrastructure meetings or ensures that students who are Black, Indigenous and/or people of color have a voice in conversations about faculty hiring priorities—helps to counteract the unequal access to power and opportunity that defines so many US institutions. When faculty, administrators, staff, and students are empowered to share vital information about and collaboratively problem solve to address challenges, we strengthen our institutions and empower our constituents to improve the world.
With this goal in mind and writing as a group of faculty and administrators from four public universities across the Midwest, we urge campuses to immediately work to redefine, reclaim, and enact true shared governance. Governing boards, administrators, faculty, staff, and students must rebuild trust, communicate transparently, and engage in joint decision-making to rediscover a shared sense of purpose and vision. Higher education cannot afford to espouse publicly the virtues of shared governance while privately enacting unilateral decisions.
Until the early 1960s, the term shared governance generally meant faculty members’ participation in curriculum and teaching. In 1966, the AAUP, the American Council on Education, and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) expanded the scope of shared governance, emphasizing interdependence, communication, and joint action among an institution’s governing board, administrators, faculty, and students.
In 2017, AGB described shared governance as “a fundamental principle of inclusion in key areas of institutional responsibility and decision-making” that requires “a shared and clearly articulated commitment to trust, collaboration, communication, transparency, inclusiveness, honesty, and integrity.” In a 2009 Chronicle of Higher Education article, Gary A. Olson, currently president of Daemen College, defined shared governance as “a delicate balance between faculty and staff participation in planning and decision-making, on the one hand, and administrative accountability on the other.” These definitions indicate a common commitment to mutual support and responsibility, but we need to create a definition of shared governance that articulates a relationship of mutual accountability among campus constituencies. We also need to recommit to truly collaborative practices that bring together the collective knowledge of faculty and administrators. We offer the following definition:
Shared governance is an ongoing, engaged system of multidirectional communication, informed decision-making, mutual trust, and distributed leadership among faculty members, administrators, staff, and students within institutions of higher education. Shared governance is nonhierarchical, such that these constituent groups share responsibility for articulating and addressing challenges and faculty and administrators are mutually accountable for how those challenges are handled.
Shared governance takes various forms at different types of institutions. At a small liberal arts institution in a rural area, for example, all members of the faculty may meet regularly in person to review policy or curriculum changes, while at an urban community college, elected representatives may work via subcommittees, asynchronously or remotely. On a unionized campus, faculty union representatives may negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with administrators around issues related to general working conditions, while a separate faculty governance body may engage with the administration about changes to curriculum and pedagogy. But the principles embedded in the definition are universal. Shared governance requires formal decision-making to be shared among multiple constituencies, ensuring that those affected by institutional changes—such as creating or ending an academic program, adopting technology tools, or establishing a new workload policy—are regularly and continuously empowered to identify problems and help develop solutions. Genuine shared governance is authentic ongoing collaboration and power sharing, in which all constituents have a voice and veto power.
Economic forces inplay long before the pandemic have undermined shared governance, with modern management theory prioritizing cost savings, efficiency, and agility over democratic processes such as having strong faculty and student representation on boards of trustees and budget committees. A July 2021 AAUP survey revealed that 63 percent of four-year institutions have no faculty involvement in budget decisions, a dramatic change from previous surveys published in 1971 (43 percent) and 2001 (13 percent). The reduction of full-time faculty positions in favor of part-time faculty and graduate teaching assistants has no doubt accelerated this shift. During this same period, campuses have dramatically increased the number of administrators and professional staff, most of whom are not engaged in shared governance work, either. According to a 2014 report from the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and American Institutes for Research, nonacademic administrative and professional employees at American colleges and universities more than doubled between 1987 and 2012. Spending on nonacademic salaries has continued to increase during the pandemic. All of these factors have led to a proliferation of top-down reporting structures, with increasing power held by a few key leaders in academic and student affairs and a widespread reduction of distributed leadership and shared governance across campus.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. As then-president of Rhodes College Marjorie Hass argued in an April 2020 Inside Higher Ed column, shared governance can, and should be, a core tenet of campus responses to the COVID-19 crisis, as well as in ordinary times. This is possible when information is shared, ensuring that decision-making has considered both the forest and the trees. “At Rhodes, we entrust faculty members with the care of the curriculum and academic policy and rely upon them to make decisions with an eye toward the culture, business model and mission of the college,” Hass explained. “They can do this because they have access to the key financial information about the college. Students serve as trusted members of key committees and have regular interaction with senior administrators and the board. Agreement about the big picture meant that in this crisis, we could trust the various layers of governance to work alone as well as together on behalf of the college’s goals.”
Shared governance is often strongest at the unit level and weakest at upper administrative ranks. Chairs must work with their faculty to revise tenure and promotion policies, update curriculum, and make hiring decisions, while provosts and presidents tend to deliver decisions downstream. Because upper administrators have less regular and direct contact with faculty and chairs, the distance between constituent group concerns grows ever wider the higher you go up the chain of command.
Concerns about the exclusion of faculty voices in shared governance are particularly acute among non-tenure-track (NTT) faculty who do the lion’s share of teaching. According to an AAUP study, in 2016, non-tenure-track positions made up more than 70 percent of all instructional staff appointments. Yet NTT faculty consistently report being left out of decision-making. As one NTT faculty member described to us, many NTT feel supported within their unit, but, especially within a humanities discipline, “I do not feel as if our interests are heard, let alone considered” when decisions are made at upper levels of the institution.
Under a general atmosphere of crisis during the start of the pandemic, decisions were often made quickly by a limited few, behind closed doors, which further eroded faculty and staff feelings of trust for administrators. Invisible decision-making by administrators had additional negative consequences: (1) major changes—such as terminating faculty and staff or centralizing advising—were difficult to challenge, since the reasoning (the essential framework for shared decision-making) was obscure; (2) these changes were often irrevocable, with no recourse or alternatives; and (3) the decisions seemed arbitrary, as when budget cuts were done across the board instead of strategically and done without consulting with department heads. The cumulative effect was a sense of resignation and hopelessness among many faculty and staff.
For example, in the spring 2020 rush to create safer classrooms for in-person learning, the importance of ensuring safety considerations were workable for all stakeholders was ignored. Universities across the country assigned campus operations staff to hurriedly create solutions that turned out to be unworkable as soon as they were tested. For example, platforms or add-ons (such as Zoom, WebEx, or Blackboard 360) were introduced without the necessary bandwidth, server capacity, or Wi-Fi hot spots to make them functional for several weeks (or months). Quite often, no consideration was made for accessibility features such as transcriptions; at some places, these would not be rolled out for months, leaving many students and faculty unable to engage in the formats. The result was wasted time, money, effort, and goodwill as faculty scrambled to create their own ad hoc solutions.
Shared governance requires involving all relevant stakeholders—in this case, faculty, students, accessibility services staff, health officials, and technology support—in solving important problems. Shared governance may require more time at the outset, but it ultimately saves time, money, and morale because it is more likely to ensure things get done right the first time.
In good times and bad, shared governance requires commitment from all parties to enact a culture of multidirectional communication. Some ways to ensure a stronger institutional fabric include regularly apprising faculty of the institution’s financial status, enrollment trends, and changing state and federal contexts (the proverbial forest). In turn, upper administrators should regularly engage with life on the ground (the trees) by visiting classes, participating in unit- and dean-level meetings, and talking with students, faculty, and staff to solicit their input and cocreate solutions.
Formal structures that can strengthen shared governance and communication include a strong and active faculty senate, accessible and effective mediators, and a collective bargaining agreement between the faculty union and the administration. Our own experiences are varied, with three of our institutions unionized and one nonunionized, spread across three states with distinct political and social contexts. In all cases, shared governance requires clearly articulated processes and platforms. Institutional practices must be focused on multidirectional communication. Individual institutions’ distinct approaches to shared governance must be clearly established, widely communicated, and consistently followed.
We suggest creating myriad pathways to share knowledge and collaboratively problem solve, such as influential committees, boards, and advisory councils, as well as anonymous feedback collection. Universities must involve affected constituents in decision-making and reward such labor. Most important, such feedback must actually influence decision-making. Shared governance means prioritizing meaningful conversations about diversity, equity, justice, inclusion, and accessibility. Institutions must also consider diverse experiences, identities, abilities, and roles for decision-making groups, with all parties collectively setting priorities and creating and assessing action plans.
This pandemic has taught us how important shared governance is when things go awry. In a crisis, faculty and administrators must work together as partners. Institutions should act now to create crisis management procedures based in shared governance processes. Such advance planning can disrupt the cycle of distrust and ensure better decisions get made when the next challenge arrives. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s maxim about distinguishing importance from urgency is apropos: shared governance is always important, even when not urgent. We cannot afford to sacrifice long-term decision-making for short-term reactivity. Shared governance is key to surviving and thriving through good times and bad.
Words of Wisdom
Advice for strengthening shared governance and making sure more voices are heard
Listen to valuable voices.
Guided by D-L Stewart’s 2017 Inside Higher Ed essay, I believe administrators, faculty, staff, and students must continuously ask: Whose voices and perspectives are included and considered seriously in the deliberation process? Who is excluded—and at what cost? To what extent will decisions mitigate or expand inequities? And how and when are these decisions communicated to diverse stakeholders? For example, the pandemic disrupted many academics’ research. Impacts on scholarly productivity were particularly pronounced for those shouldering job responsibilities while also caring for children and other loved ones. As universities revise promotion, reappointment, tenure, and merit policies, decision-making processes must include and support the valuable voices of those affected disproportionately by the pandemic. —Lisa K. Hanasono, associate professor in the School of Media and Communication at Bowling Green State University
Have difficult conversations.
In a department with an amalgamation of health disciplines, shared governance happens regularly in diverse settings and across multiple formats (formal/informal settings, one-on-one/large-group meetings, in-person/virtual gatherings). As chair, I invite faculty and staff to provide feedback both publicly and anonymously. We talk often and honestly about the challenges we face in diversifying our fields, acknowledging that different points of view are critical for cultivating a culture of openness. I routinely share updates from meetings with upper administrators, ensuring my faculty understand the context for decision-making at the unit level. I also make time to celebrate the unique talents and contributions of our faculty and staff, through notes of appreciation and award nominations. We are committed to continued education and growth, even when the conversations are difficult. —Mary-Jon Ludy, associate professor of food and nutrition and chair of the Department of Public and Allied Health at Bowling Green State University
The pandemic created circumstances that required swift administrative actions. Decisions that affected pedagogy, class size, and format, which would usually be made together through collaborative discussions, were enacted without the input of many important stakeholders. While the circumstances required immediate actions, many faculty were concerned that policies could substantially shift without consensus. The experience highlighted the importance of shared governance to faculty members’ sense of value to the university and showed how quickly a perceived power imbalance can emerge. —Jerry Schnepp, associate professor of visual communication technology at Bowling Green State University
Talk to people directly affected by changes.
The COVID-19 pandemic put tremendous financial pressure on New York’s public universities during 2020–21, causing hiring freezes and pauses in research funding. What has gone unacknowledged, though, are the long-term effects such financial decisions will have. Centrally made decisions at the state university system level have had detrimental effects on individual campuses, especially smaller universities with less generous endowments and limited federal grant support. High-level administration, far removed from the day-to-day operations of academic programs and not bothering to get input from the faculty involved, often unwittingly penalized small and newly founded units, many of which will not be able to recover. This has revealed the importance of shared governance on all scales. —Ekaterina I. Noyes, professor and director of the Division of Health Services Policy and Practice at the University at Buffalo
Ensure two-way communication.
As a department chair, it was my responsibility to ensure two-way communication between the administration and faculty, informed decision-making, and distributed leadership. As an associate dean, my role has shifted to leading the college as part of a team that operates closely with upper administration. It is challenging to balance upholding my leadership values with feeling pressured to act by those in upper administration who may not share those values. Claims from upper administration that shared governance exists, by citing classic examples like the existence of a faculty senate, are weak evidence. The reality is that such examples engage only a small number of often recurring actors, leaving out faculty and staff in favor of expediency. —M. Elise Radina, associate dean for faculty development and graduate studies, and professor of family science and social work at Miami University
The key to shared governance of our general education (GE) program is that inclusive groups of faculty and administrators build proposals together; they also build assessment, high-impact practices, and processes for GE and then close the loop with other groups, including the provost’s office, faculty senate, dean’s offices, and advising. A key example is our recent “every course, every outcome” project. Working groups of faculty, advising and student affairs staff, and students have been developing rubrics to aid in measuring student learning, and our assessment team (faculty and staff) gather and present input from the faculty senate and the provost’s office. Our implementation group also works with campus information technology and faculty to place key components in our learning management system.
—W. John Koolage, professor of philosophy and director of general education at Eastern Michigan University
Maintain instructional quality.
I’m the director of a large and comprehensive school of art. Our methodologically and pedagogically diverse programs include studio art, digital arts, graphic design, art education, and art history. Overly centralized, top-down decision-making results in policies that don’t work for all constituents. For instance, remote education looks very different to a sculpture professor than to an art historian. To maintain instructional quality, I need upper administrators to understand the range of our needs and allow me the freedom, within institutional imperatives, to collaborate with my faculty and staff to flexibly interpret, adapt, and apply policy. —Charles Kanwischer, professor of art and director of the School of Art at Bowling Green State University
Clarify roles and responsibilities.
I am a program coordinator in a school embedded in a college within a university. This multilayered structure often creates ambiguity in roles and responsibilities. Communication must be mutual, inclusive, and consistent to build consensus and move programmatic agendas forward. Shared governance provides clarity and ensures equitable stakes in the administration of the program and the university. —Laura Landry-Meyer, associate professor and program coordinator of human development and family studies at Bowling Green State University
Build strong relationships.
As director of a public humanities center, I’ve sought to enact shared governance both formally (for example, our executive board now requires representation from various academic disciplines and ranks, administrative roles, alumni, and community organizations) and informally (through ad hoc committees, affiliate groups, email lists, surveys, and face-to-face conversations). It is only through strong relationships with diverse and multidimensional constituencies that our work has meaning, purpose, and an audience. The stronger the relationships we build, the more honest—and tough—our stakeholders’ feedback will be, which helps ensure our programming is timely, relevant, and challenging. For example, discussions with the staff and executive board about annual programming priorities center on equity, accessibility, and the public good. This has helped us bring greater nuance and impact to our work.
—Jolie A. Sheffer, professor of English and American culture studies and director of the Institute for the Study of Culture and Society at Bowling Green State University