Using Shared Governance to Revise the Core Curriculum
Updating, revising, and re-envisioning a core curriculum is a complex—but critical—task for colleges and universities.
August 12, 2021
Updating, revising, and re-envisioning a core curriculum is a complex—but critical—task for colleges and universities. Different stakeholders often have different goals: administrators may desire a curricular framework that is simple to understand and market to prospective students and their parents, faculty may want a curriculum that is broad and has an appropriate mix of courses, and students may appreciate a curriculum that offers greater flexibility and more choices. Balancing these perspectives can be a challenge.
Between us, we have been in the unique positions of overseeing successful core curriculum revisions at two universities, Duquesne and Mercyhurst. The key to success at both institutions was a transparent process of shared governance among administrators, faculty, and students.
What Is Shared Governance?
In 1966, the American Association of University Professors described shared governance as the “shared responsibility among the different components of institutional government and the specific areas of primary responsibility for governing boards, administrators, and faculties.”
Decades later, Gary A. Olsen (now the president of Daemen College), expanded this definition by providing clarity about two overlapping traits of effective shared governance:
- All constituencies have a role in the decision-making process, but that doesn’t mean every constituent gets to participate at every stage of the process. Nor does it mean that any constituency has complete control of the process.
- Certain constituencies have a greater role in decision making that is central to their expertise and core responsibilities within the organization.
Ensuring All Constituents Have a Role in the Process
We used several different approaches at Mercyhurst and Duquesne to ensure that all constituents had an active and participatory role in the curricular revisions. Town hall meetings, forums, listening sessions, surveys, and “drafting days” can directly involve stakeholders in the development of key aspects of the curriculum (such as learning outcomes) and provide an avenue to solicit their thoughts, ideas, and feedback. Administrators can create the structure for these events and serve as facilitators across stakeholder groups. They can also help to connect the dots between ideas and between stakeholder groups.
But effective shared governance also means that stakeholders’ active and concrete involvement goes well beyond simply providing input; they should be full partners with ideas and perspectives that are included in every aspect of the process. At both Mercyhurst and Duquesne, it was critical that all members of a stakeholder group were provided opportunities to participate. For example, all faculty—including tenure-track, non-tenure-track, and adjunct faculty—were included in the process.
At Duquesne, eight “design teams” of faculty and students developed competing models for the structure of the new curriculum. The models they proposed ranged from team-taught interdisciplinary courses to student-designed research pathways. The culmination of the teams’ work took place on “design day,” when they pitched their ideas to faculty, staff, students, and administrators, who all had the opportunity to evaluate and vote on proposals using an app. One of the favored proposals used the metaphor of “bridges” to connect an integrated learning focus of the new curriculum to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Duquesne has its home. This is how Duquesne’s new curriculum got its name: Bridges Common Learning Experience.
At Mercyhurst, administrators used a series of town hall meetings and forums to gather the ideas from stakeholders that shaped the curriculum. Stakeholders at Mercyhurst wanted to build a curriculum that encouraged students to be servant leaders reaching for new goals. Administrators worked with faculty leaders to create three levels of courses in a pyramid-shaped core curriculum: first to help students stand—to position themselves (the base of the pyramid); then to expand—to reach for a goal (the middle of the pyramid); finally, to command—to grasp onto a goal (the top of the pyramid). From these ideas, the new Mercyhurst core curriculum got its name: REACH.
Certain Constituencies Have a Greater Role in the Final Decision
In addition to giving all stakeholders a role in the decision-making process, shared governance also recognizes that certain constituencies may need a greater role in making the final decision. At a college or university, the constituency with the most background, expertise, and knowledge in curricular development is the faculty.
However, many faculty members have vested interests—ranging from job security to power to position—in the outcomes of core curriculum revisions that could affect their ultimate decision-making. Core curriculum revisions can also exacerbate other issues on campus, including preexisting tensions between academic departments or competing narratives regarding strategic priorities.
At its best, shared governance can simultaneously harness faculty expertise and educate faculty. The collaborative approaches we took at Duquesne and Mercyhurst maximized faculty involvement and input, minimized conflicts of interest, and provided a broad understanding of the tensions and constraints that are inevitable with general education (e.g., that increasing flexibility for students means decreasing the predictability of course scheduling).
Keeping a core curriculum vibrant, engaging, and relevant for future generations of students is a critical task for all college and university educators. Approaching the necessary revisions through shared governance can ensure that all stakeholders have a voice in the process and ownership of the final outcome.