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AAUP 2016 Shared Governance conference: of talk and beyond talk

Conferences | Topics in Higher Education

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This weekend, members of the Interfolio team spent time at the AAUP’s Shared Governance Conference in Washington, D.C. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the AAUP’s foundational statement on shared governance, the central policy document that remains the authority for accepted practice on decision-making in higher education.

Shared governance places the weight of decision-making in the hands of those who contribute to the mission of higher education—governing boards, administrations, and, most importantly, faculties—according to their respective responsibilities. More colloquially, it’s what gives faculty a collective voice in decisions that affect the university.

At Interfolio, we’re committed to shared governance because we believe it’s the most important element to ensure rigor and credibility at a university. Academic decisions should remain solely in the hands of the faculty. That’s why we create tools to assist with important faculty-led governance processes like hiring and faculty advancement. We believe that faculty deserve tools and technology that strengthen, document, and make more efficient the logistics around committee work, so faculty can focus solely on the important decision-making that’s their right.

Why is shared governance necessary? First of all, as Hans-Joerg Tiede, the senior program officer in the AAUP’s Department of Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Governance said in one session, shared governance is necessary because higher ed institutions “aren’t widget factories”—universities are highly complex and include a variety of tasks that require equally varied responsibilities, like teaching, research, operations, and financial stewardship. Second, the interdependence of a governing board, administration, faculty, students, and others means you need both adequate communication and the full opportunity for “appropriate joint planning and effort.”

The issue of “joint effort” is paramount: the AAUP statement declares that “appropriate joint planning and effort requires participation depending on the degree of responsibility.” There’s not supposed to be a hierarchical way of making decisions, top down from the president, but instead all institutional components (faculty and administration) need to be involved. At this conference, however, there was a pervasive feeling that universities are losing touch with the principles of shared governance and becoming more and more like hierarchically-run businesses.

So the question, then, is: how involved should governing boards and administration be in shared governance? The AAUP’s statement says that involvement depends on the weight of responsibility for the matter at hand. Some areas are the primary responsibility of faculty—like curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and aspects of student life which relate to the educational process—so they get most weight in those decisions. Other areas, like making sure the institution stays true to its mission and making sure it has the financial resources to operate successfully, are the primary responsibility of the governing boards, so they get the most weight.

Importantly, though, the AAUP’s statement stresses that “the board should undertake appropriate self-limitation,” that is, it’s the responsibility of the board to delegate authority, not to consolidate it. For instance, when faculty status is considered—promotion, review, and tenure—there’s a conception that a governing board or administration has the final say in all decisions. But since faculty status is not an area of primary responsibility for boards or administrators, in fact “the power of review or final decision lodged in the governing board… should be exercised adversely only in exceptional circumstances.”

It must be respected that these are questions for universities to settle, not primarily for non-academic outsiders. Hence university professors coming together to share advice, methods, and experiences in an organized, in-person forum like this meeting. Needless to say, the AAUP has been and continues to be instrumental in articulating—by consensus, not by decree—the roles, powers, and responsibilities of professional academics in the U.S.

And indeed, the prevailing balance of power within U.S. institutions of higher education decidedly affects the broader society, locally and globally. In various ways throughout the conference, presenters and audience members reiterated the key point that the shape of U.S. higher education today is not something handed down or, so to speak, naturally occurring, but is a consequence of many concrete actions taken across the country in recent decades. Understandably, faculty are challenging those in senior academic leadership to go beyond adjectives and make concrete, transparent moves that will change the equation to produce a healthier environment.