Martin and Ruth Ann Fate Board Room, Phillips Theological Seminary
Shared governance is a slippery concept in all of higher education, and it's the source of much misunderstanding, according to an article title "Exactly What Is 'Shared Governance'?" in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education.

Faculty are often confused about shared governance. Some think it means that the faculty govern through their academic senate or other legislative body, while administrators do the managerial work that faculty find too onerous. Many have little sense of the "sharing" part of shared governance.

The article's author, Gary A. Olson, sets the record straight:

The truth is that all legal authority in any university originates from one place and one place only: its governing board. . . . Typically, the board then formally delegates authority over the day-to-day operation of the institution (often in an official "memorandum of delegation") to the president, who, in turn, may delegate authority over certain parts of university management to other university officials -- for example, granting authority over academic personnel and programs to the provost as the chief academic officer, and so on.

He goes on to explain that shared governance often refers to two different concepts: 

  1. "Giving various groups of people a share in key decision-making processes." A good example of this is a search for a senior administrators, where various groups of faculty, board members, staff, administrators, and sometimes even students participate in the process, but the final decision is left to a person -- the provost or president, for example -- not a committee, which cannot be held responsible for bad decisions.
  2. "Allowing certain groups to exercise primary responsibility for specific areas of decision making." The most obvious example of this is the faculty's role in shaping academic policies. But even here, the board or a person designated by the board (an academic dean or the president) is usually ultimately responsible for changes in the curriculum.

Olson ends with a great reminder:

The key to genuine shared governance is broad and unending communication. When various groups of people are kept in the loop and understand what developments are occurring within the university, and when they are invited to participate as true partners, the institution prospers. That, after all, is our common goal.

Click here to read the article in the Chronicle of Higher Education  (subscription required).