Especially during times of volatility, higher education institutions need to practice effective and responsive governance. Doing so enables them to continue making vital decisions while upholding their reputations and delivering an excellent educational experience that drives enrollment rates.
The shared governance model came about around 55 years ago when three organizations collaborated to publish the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. This statement called for shared responsibility among different entities, thus resulting in the shared governance model. Its goal was to standardize processes across the sector.
Since then, institutions have come to use this model as an integral part of their decision-making processes and structure. Now, as the higher education sector faces ongoing changes (such as remote and hybrid operations), sharing governance is vital for opening up the institution to a wider range of perspectives and staying ahead of other institutions.
If you’ve recently joined your school’s board or another governing group at your institution, you might be wondering what this model looks like. To help, we’ll give a quick rundown of the shared governance model. Here’s what we’ll cover:
- What is shared governance?
- Why higher education institutions use shared governance
- Implementing the shared governance model
Leveraging an effective governance structure and knowing how to effectively lead your institution will result in a much more valuable learning experience that will stick with students for a lifetime. Let’s get started.
What Is Shared Governance?
First and foremost, you must understand what shared governance is before you can implement strategies to practice it effectively.
In the higher education sector, shared governance refers to the process and structures through which decisions are made that affect the institution. It ensures that leadership power is distributed among various groups, including faculty, administrators, board members, and sometimes students. The ultimate goal is to achieve alignment on goals and decisions between these different groups.
Governance models vary quite a bit across different colleges and universities. Each institution has different groups that contribute in very specific ways and vote on important decisions. For example, regardless of your governance structure, faculty representatives are likely responsible for academic areas such as curriculum, academic standards, instruction methods, and degree requirements.
In any case, shared governance should address all important areas of the institution. The idea here is to provide equal attention to what impacts the institution’s success, helping to respond rapidly to emergency situations and stay ahead of ongoing changes in the educational system.
Why Higher Education Institutions Use Shared Governance
As mentioned, the idea of shared governance has been around for more than 50 years. Like with any practice, it has certainly had its criticism over the years, but overall, many institutions agree that this model is the best approach for effectively governing their organizations and upholding academic excellence.
This begs the question why? Let’s take a look at a few reasons why shared governance is still used today:
- Timely and informed advice from various governance committees. Emergency situations warrant immediate responses. Instead of having one group scramble to try to cover everything, an institution that uses shared governance should give each group a specific role to play, ensuring every area is covered quickly without overwhelming any single group. Part of this also entails how communicating decisions to an external audience will be handled, either via website updates, emails, social media, or some other form of communication depending on the situation.
- A wider range of expertise, allowing administrators to assign certain tasks to the best group for the job. Let’s travel back to March 2020 and use the COVID-19 pandemic as an example. As the pandemic flared up, the faculty governance committee might have been assigned to come up with a plan for remote classroom instruction, develop a list of approved digital course materials, and create a list of temporary policies for faculty to follow. Meanwhile, the student government might have reached out to students and gathered concerns to share with administrators.
- Maintain transparency by bringing in more groups. When you bring in different members of your institution’s population, you naturally increase transparency for key decisions. Plus, people will feel at ease knowing the group that represents them has their best interests in mind.
Overall, sharing governance among a handful of groups ensures that decisions reflect the institution’s entire population. What it boils down to is that shared governance boosts collaboration and strengthens relationships between key governing groups. This model ensures multiple viewpoints are accounted for, information is shared, and a sense of transparency is maintained throughout the institution.
Implementing The Shared Governance Model
Higher education institutions that are looking to implement or revisit the shared governance model should have a framework for doing so. This will allow for an equal distribution of power and ensure everyone involved understands what’s expected.
Here are a few factors to consider to ensure your approach to governance is effective from the start and continues to be helpful as circumstances evolve.
Ensure everyone is aware of their responsibilities.
Every group should have a clear understanding of their roles at your institution. Have a meeting specifically to go over a set of shared principles and the distinct responsibilities each group will hold.
For instance, Boardable’s guide to board member responsibilities discusses what duties are commonly assigned to boards of directors. In terms of higher education, this involves responsibilities like giving oversight of the delivery of education. You should provide a high level of guidance for every other group as well.
As you assign and communicate these responsibilities, make sure to address the following questions:
- What are the day-to-day responsibilities held by each governing group and each individual group member? How do each group’s responsibilities intertwine?
- What is the level of transparency that each governing group is expected to hold with one another to ensure no one feels like information is being withheld?
- How will each group stay aligned on the institution’s strategic goals?
The goal here should be to define how different governing groups will work together. All groups should understand their mutual responsibility to ensure the institution’s continued sustainability and success. Having an open conversation will help you reveal and address any discrepancies between how the board, administrators, faculty, and student leadership view shared governance.
Welcome multiple perspectives by proactively building a diverse team that ensures minority viewpoints are heard. This provides insight into different perspectives in times of crisis, helping to make sure you’re cognizant of everyone’s needs. This includes those who face financial constraints, have accessibility needs, or are attending from out of the state or country.
Beyond welcoming diverse populations to leadership roles, make sure to encourage everyone to support inclusivity by proactively teaching your leaders about diversity, equity, and inclusion. For instance, Bloomerang’s list of nonprofit diversity resources is a great place to start for materials and lessons you can share with your team.
Without an inclusive team, you may have an underrepresented population whose perspectives aren’t accounted for in the decision-making process.
Build a culture of communication.
The shared governance model depends on open and honest communication. Transparency is what equips each governing group — whether the board, faculty, or another group — to make informed decisions.
Establish a sense of transparency by defining a reporting structure. In other words, what groups need to report information to one another?
Let’s take the faculty for example. While faculty members hold the primary responsibility for setting curriculum, any changes that this group deems appropriate must be approved. Approval is either given by the board of directors, a dean, the university president, or some other governance officer or group. This structure helps to keep the right people aligned on decisions. In particular, the board of directors needs to know this information in order to provide effective oversight.
Along those lines, the faculty also needs insight into the board’s strategic oversight and decision-making. This can be done by inviting faculty members to participate in board or committee meetings. Define these communication expectations upfront to establish a much more transparent and collaborative shared governance model.
Colleges and universities that have a healthy shared governance model — meaning ones that regularly practice sharing information and consulting a broad range of groups in decision-making — are well equipped to navigate the ever-changing higher education landscape.
As we enter the spring semester and your board evaluates plans for next year, know that investing in effective shared governance will be time and money well spent.
About the author:
Jeb Banner is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a board management software provider for mission-driven boards. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way of Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors.