Better Than Shared Governanace

Faculty and faculty labor unions (AAUP) have a loud voice when it comes to shared governance: it’s importance, the good it has done, threats to shared governance such as the rising use of adjuncts and corporate management style, and so on. They argue for stasis of a concept that has evolved over time and continues to evolve, whether one likes it or not.

The main arguments for faculty influence in institutional decision-making include:

  • Assure that the future purpose of higher education remains at it has been in the past
  • To safeguard academic values and sound decision-making in academic matters
  • To assure academic rigor and the quality of higher education
  • To perpetuate the mission and benefits of liberal arts education
  • To maintain global preeminence of American universities

Conversely, erosion of shared governance de-professionalizes faculty and puts American higher education at risk of decline and the loss of its globally preeminent position.

Yet, the preeminence of American universities is due to numerous factors, shared governance being just one. Professionalization corresponds with work in which few errors are made. As teaching is the primary role of faculty, we know that most faculty make many recurring teaching errors. Quality in teaching and teaching materials is not as high as it appears to be. Global preeminence will not continue if the preferred solution to change is one practice that seems to have served varied interests well in the past.

The typical arguments used to defend of shared governance represent the failure of shared governance. Its advocates fail to recognize changes in public and private attitudes about higher education, global competition, resource constraints, new teaching pedagogies and technologies, and the power struggles that ensue.

I believe shared governance has extended its each far beyond where it does the most good. The Lean thinker would ask: “Is shared governance necessary for everything, or for some things?” In Lean University, I wrote that of the 30 or more committees on a typical university campus, faculty need to be involved in only a handful: particularly those related to the product – curriculum and graduate studies – and the people – promotion and tenure – and forego much of the rest. Let the administrators earn their high salaries. They can tap individual faculty for guidance as-needed.

In most cases, faculty have experienced amateur-levels of leadership in senior administration. By amateur, I mean leaders who make lots of fundamental errors in how they lead. If leadership were professional, with far fewer errors, then faculty would have greater confidence in their leaders’ decision-making. Yet, even the best decision-makers make bad decisions.

The whole point behind shared governance is to improve institutional decision-making. Shared governance is an antidote to poor (often centralized) senior management decision-making. But, there are other ways to do that. One such way is called kaizen, whose intent is to improve processes at the local level. As with any method, kaizen must be practiced correctly (see kaizen principles here), which includes the establishment of a “no-blame” environment by senior leaders.

Higher education leaders who want to continuously improve their leadership skills and capabilities to strengthen professionalism and who lead kaizen can take a university to better places than can be achieved by shared governance.

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