A young assistant professor from a denominational seminary once told me an unhappy tale about governance. She said she'd grown increasingly troubled by the division, rancor, and demoralization she had observed in her brief tenure among her colleagues. Yet the administration and board seemed inured to these long-standing patterns and accepted the condition as a natural and, perhaps, inevitable reality.
She didn't know how to discuss the problem with her polarized colleagues, and the dean made only half-hearted stabs at promoting collegiality without addressing the deeper theological, intra-denominational, and interpersonal tensions. She then told me how she had seized an opportunity to speak privately with the board chair and express her alarm over the damaging effects of low faculty morale on the seminary community. With an icy stare and a few dismissive comments, he quickly let her know that she was out of line in speaking directly to him on the subject.
She said she instantly felt shamed, confused, and stupid. In retrospect, she believed her motives were largely disinterested -- to voice her concern about a debilitating and polarized educational and spiritual atmosphere, the elephant in the living room -- but also naive. She was made to feel like a disloyal tattletale seeking to influence the board chair outside of all appropriate channels.
Inadvertently, she'd stumbled on a local governance tripwire: faculty politics are just that and not the province of the board. New assistant professors have no business talking to the chair of the board about internal matters. She'd probably also been confirmed in her growing cynicism about governance: board and faculty inhabit two entirely separate spheres, neither of which is accountable for sticky matters of institutional culture.
Over the years this story has led me to ponder how new faculty members, and especially those in their first academic jobs, learn the ropes. Their graduate schools teach them how to pursue their disciplines. Advice on good teaching now abounds. But how do they learn about their own role and the role of the faculty as a body in governance?
Governing boards and faculties, and sometimes religious bodies or university boards, "share" in the governance of theological schools. "Share" is vague and provides no map. At In Trust, we like to describe governance as each institution's own choreography for achieving balance among the various authorities committed to the school's mission and economic vitality.
As often as not, that balance is achieved by default, not intention, which is to say it rests on unexamined assumptions. When those assumptions are primarily about boundaries, as this young faculty member learned, then there is little opportunity to tap into the talent and good will in all the various authorities.
This is not to say that no boundaries exist, or that our idealistic assistant professor didn't need some instruction from a kindly board chair. But, when all parties to the dance of governance recognize that shared governance derives from a shared mission, then boundaries need not be the only point.
What if our icy board chair had recognized how unformed this young faculty member was, listened to her, and simply thanked her for her concern for the seminary's well-being? He wouldn't have spoken out of turn to say that he was familiar with the issue from other sources and that this seminary faculty had long mirrored a tension in the church body.
He could also file the newcomer's observations for future reference. Perhaps the problem was worsening. And without betraying the faculty member he could discuss with the president how he was managing the tension. He might also ask what steps were being taken to orient new faculty members to their role in governance and how he and the board might help. When lines are drawn too early, opportunities are lost, charity is denied, and cynicism is fed. Good governance knows when the lines should be crossed.