Most boards of trustees of higher education institutions use shared governance as the cornerstone of their work. However, shared governance can be challenging to put into practice because the stakeholders may not understand what shared governance means or what their role is in the process. Faculty and trustees have unique perspectives on shared governance and are often not on the same page (Bahls, 2014; J.M. Fohr, personal communication, May 28, 2020). Some trustees may have served on other boards that held a very different view of shared governance from their current board affiliation. Many trustees do not have any formal higher education administration experience. Faculty may not understand how shared governance was designed to work at their institution. All stakeholders must understand the specific meaning of shared governance and their role in the process for the board to be successful.
The first step in developing a successfully shared governance process is to make sure the board members, administrators, and faculty understand what shared governance is and their expectations for the process to work (Bahls, 2014). All stakeholders need to be on the same page for shared governance to occur. Defining what shared governance means should be part of every onboarding process for new board members. In addition, faculty and the institution's leadership need to have the same definition of shared governance as the board to work together successfully.
Trustees should understand the board and administration's different roles in shared governance (Association of Governing Boards and Colleges (ABG), n.d.). The different roles should be clearly defined to determine how the board, faculty, and administration can achieve a common goal. Each stakeholder has different perspectives that need to be respected and given consideration in the decision-making process. In a perfect world, the board provides fiduciary oversight for the institution, the president's primary responsibility is to manage the institution, and the faculty oversees academic programs. Unfortunately, this does not always happen and is usually a result of the stakeholders not understanding what shared governance means and their role in the process.
Colleges and universities that have a successful process for shared governance perform much better during times of extreme change than other institutions (Hass, 2020). Successful shared governance includes maintaining open lines of communication, consulting stakeholders with the appropriate expertise in the decision process, and being transparent in sharing information. The administration needs to be open and honest about the financial state of the institution. Diversity of thought and perspective also needs to be part of the process to ensure that all stakeholders feel their voices have been heard. This type of shared governance builds trust in the decision-making process and makes solutions more thoughtful, and the implementation process works faster (Bahls, 2014).
One of the ten habits of highly effective boards includes establishing a strong governance committee to ensure the board is effective (Legon, 2014). This committee is critical to board structure and accountability, especially for private institutions. Part of the committee's responsibilities should be to ensure the board recruits and appoints new trustees with an eye for experience and expertise to enhance the board's ability to perform. Higher education is changing rapidly due to the pandemic, and trustees must have the knowledge and expertise to address the critical issues facing higher education. This committee is an excellent tool to use to monitor and improve board performance.
The ABG also suggests that boards develop a renewed commitment to shared governance (ABG, n.d.). All stakeholders must be part of the governance process to establish a sense of teamwork and collaboration. Boards should consistently assess their performance by engaging all stakeholders for feedback. Soliciting feedback can be done through the governance committee previously mentioned and conducting surveys or workshops with the administration, faculty, and the board. This collaborative assessment will ensure that all stakeholders understand what shared governance is and their role in the process. The evaluation is also an opportunity for critical issues to be addressed and to build trust between all stakeholders. Faculty need to know their voices are being heard, and the administration and the board support them.
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. (n.d.) Principles of trusteeship.
Bahls, Steven C. (2014). How to make shared governance work: Some best practices.
Hass, Marjorie. (2020, April 29). Colleges with healthy shared governance perform better in
crises than those with top-down decision making (opinion). Inside Higher Ed.
Legon, Richard D., (2014). The 10 habits of highly effective boards. Trusteeship 22(2),
I am a higher education administrator with over 15 years of experience in communications and operations. The views in my blog are my own.