Governance Reconsidered: How Boards, Presidents, Administrators, and Faculty Can Help Their Colleges Thrive, by Susan Resneck Pierce (Jossey-Bass, 2014, 256 pp., $42). 

On page 1 of Governance Reconsidered, author Susan Resneck Pierce announces that the tradition of shared governance, as generally understood and practiced over the last half-century, is “now being shattered” — or at least jeopardized on many campuses. Pierce analyzes the mounting internal and external pressures in higher education that contribute to discord and turmoil and then recommends how to refurbish procedures in shared governance to achieve resolution. Her heart is with the faculty, whom she also chastens, but her solutions rest largely on the shoulders of the president backed by a supportive board. 

Noting the many recent faculty votes of no confidence in presidents, Pierce aims to dissect and heal the adversarial relationships that poison collaboration among boards, presidents, and faculties. Only cooperation, she says, can advance institutional transformation and health.

An established ideal

Pierce lays the groundwork for her proposals with the conventional historical review of the origins of shared governance. In the 19th century, she says, through the influence of faculty trained in Europe, control over academic matters in higher education was wrested from clergy-dominated presidencies and boards and entrusted to faculties.

By the 1960s, the increasing influence of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and other related organizations cemented the consensus that faculty should be responsible for academic affairs, while the board and administration could make policies and implement programs related to students, facilities, and indeed everything at the university except for academics. 

Pierce describes the AAUP’s ideal of shared governance: “Even as ultimate authority and responsibility for an institution resides with the governing board, the board typically delegates operational responsibility to the president, while the faculty has primary responsibility for academic programs and educational policy” (page 13).

With variations in practice, this ideal has been widely accepted. For example, the Association of Theological Schools, in its General Institutional Standard 7.2.2., voices the necessary nuances for theological schools, emphasizing that each must define the particular roles of board, president, faculty, and others: 

Shared governance follows from the collegial nature of theological education. Unique and overlapping roles and responsibilities of the governing board, faculty, administrators, students, and other identified delegated authorities should be defined in a way that allows all partners to exercise their mandated or delegated leadership. Governance requires a carefully delineated process for the initiation, review, approval, implementation, and evaluation of governing policies, ensuring that all necessary policies and procedures are in place. Special attention should be given to policies regarding freedom of inquiry, board-administrator prerogatives, procedural fairness, sexual harassment, and discrimination. 

The book’s next three chapters provide a useful summary of current stressors on governance, beginning with financial pressures and the need for urgent action to address them. Some of the new developments that have ramifications for governance: 

  • The growing reliance on nontenured “contingent faculty” — now totaling three-quarters of all faculty and usually holding no voting privileges.

  • Online learning and MOOCs.

  • The mounting public criticism about the costs and value of higher education.

The remaining 120-page section of the volume is the most valuable, and is largely presented as “tales,” both “cautionary” and “exemplary.” In three separate chapters she covers presidents, faculty, and boards, drawing on her own interpretations of press accounts, observations, and conversations with campus leaders. 

In the chapter titled “Cautionary Tales: Protests of Presidential Actions and Lessons for Shared Governance,” Pierce sketches what a significant portion of faculty members do when the president has not adequately involved them in academic decision making, which they regard as their province. Listing several actions that invite attack, such as reorganizing programs and refining criteria for tenure and promotion, she then offers recommendations for presidents.

When it comes to faculty, Pierce prefaces her analysis with expressions of sympathetic concern, since faculty are “the heart and soul of every good college and university,” trained to be critical thinkers, both deliberative and independent. That formation can make them resistant to rapid decision making, especially of the top-down variety. She also notes how culture and personality can make some prone to an adversarial viewpoint.

Pierce gives solid examples of both generosity and self-interest among faculty members. For example, she notes how faculty members can abuse one another’s role in shared governance, especially when senior faculty who vote on tenure decisions create an atmosphere of intimidation for junior professors. Yet she also illustrates how faculty members can support a president who is being treated unfairly. 

Nevertheless, Pierce’s message to faculty is clear: Corporately and individually, they “must be willing to make decisions in a much more timely fashion than has traditionally been the case,” she says. And it’s crucial that they “embrace new approaches to governance that focus on institutional health rather than primarily on faculty prerogatives.” She emphasizes that faculty members must abandon the notion that trustees and administrators are their natural adversaries and instead see them as collaborators in fulfilling the institution’s mission. 

Pierce’s cautionary tales for boards focus on highly publicized dramatic failures of boards to fulfill their responsibilities, whether in exercising oversight over the president or in monitoring institutional performance on enrollment and finance. She clearly expects active engagement from trustees who must be well informed if they are to serve as the president’s “strategic partners.” And she expects boards to both “understand and appreciate” the good work of the faculty.

Pierce wants her advice and guidelines to renew governance for all three governance partners, but she makes clear that the president must direct this renewal, as her final four exemplary tales demonstrate. As the former president of the University of Puget Sound, a consultant on presidential leadership, and the author of On Being Presidential: A Guide for College and University Leaders (Jossey-Bass, 2011), she knows the office well. Her governance advice for exemplary presidencies demonstrates both her wisdom and her appreciation of the distinctive capacities inherent to the role.

Drawing on the commonalities in the leadership of her four tales of effective presidents, Pierce highlights a visionary style that is essential from a presidency’s outset. A successful new president, she says, believes that a school is better than its reputation — even better than colleagues and board members believe it to be! A successful new president leads a process to develop a new institutional vision, she adds. A successful new president exhibits respect for the school’s history and values, and he or she works hard at getting to know faculty, staff, and students.

Yet I was left wondering: What about older, weathered presidencies in crisis? And why does she treat the president as if he or she is a solitary figure, isolated from a trusted administrative team? Pierce’s advice, instructive but developed in hindsight, tends to elevate public solo acts, not the administrative team that in even the smallest theological school makes transformative change possible. She also fails to recognize that good governance is a matter of process, not an end in itself. 

A culture that undergirds a mission widely shared and a vision measurably pursued produces a strong institution. That is the work of weathered presidents, boards, and faculties. Healthy shared governance should be made up of roles and practices reflective of that culture and its mission, but those means are not the ends. This is a decent book about means.

Susan Resneck Pierce’s best practices for boards — especially during a crisis

  1. The entire board needs to be involved in decisions to remove a president.

  2. All discussions of presidential performance must be informed.

  3. Boards should investigate all signed complaints about the president.

  4. Boards should seek PR advice for complex situations.

  5. If possible, boards and departing presidents should collaborate.

  6. Boards should seek to give departing presidents dignity.

  7. Personnel matters should be kept confidential.

  8. Boards should clarify the succession plan.

  9. Board leadership should communicate with the campus.

  10. Trustees should focus on the institution.

  11. Boards need to model the core values of the institution.

  12. Boards should try to defuse contentious situations.

For more on each of these, see pages 170–183 of Governance Reconsidered.

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