I'm with you on most of this. But the section on shared governance, I’m not so sure about that,” a board member commented after reading through the retreat agenda I had distributed to him and his colleagues. “It’ll take some convincing to get me to go there.” 

The tone was congenial, but his jutting jaw communicated resistance to the notion that anything good can come from shared governance. 

Working as an In Trust Governance Mentor for more than a decade, I’ve seen that face many times. Suspicion of shared governance runs deep in theological school boardrooms, despite a long history of participatory decision making within higher education. 

To be fair, teaching staff and some administrators have their suspicions as well. I’ve seen that face in faculty meetings and when talking with members of presidents’ cabinet. There are myths and misconceptions aplenty on both sides of the governance street. 

Not many board members, including those on education committees, are familiar with the carefully constructed and often complicated governance pathways that guide academic decision making. And even fewer faculty members understand the legal and fiduciary responsibilities of boards. 

For the most part, governance stakeholders journey in isolation from one another, communicating through the president or the occasional white paper or study report. It’s little wonder when folks in one sector of the institution hurry on without regard for the wisdom, opinions, or prerogatives of other travelers. In governance, as in most areas of life, out of sight is out of mind. 

Construction zone ahead 

Shared governance does not emerge out of nothing. It takes time, commitment, patience, and a genuine openness to change if we hope to usher in the new. And it requires strong leadership — within the board, on the part of the president and the president’s team, and from among the faculty. Individuals and groups who formerly did not spend time together must acquire a perspective broader than their particular niche within the school. As Gordon Smith observes in an essay titled “Attending to the Collective Vocation,” “Accepting a model of shared governance means that we graciously work within structures where our own ‘self-serving rationalizations’ can be challenged.”(Smith’s article originally appeared in The Scope of Our Art: The Vocation of the Theological Teacher, edited by L. Gregory Jones and Stephanie Paulsell, and was reprinted in Theological Education in 2009.) 

If the intent is to soften or smooth out the inevitable bumps in the governance roadways, institutional leaders must give attention to four key processes. These are: 

  • Naming the governance stakeholders. This seems obvious, yet it’s surprising how often individuals misunderstand their bylaw-mandated standing within the institutional governance structure. Power in academic settings doesn’t flow from the top down as it does in private enterprises. Power springs from many sources, including those without official standing, and over time, squatter’s rights trump roles on paper. That’s why it’s important to step back occasionally — to clarify who within the institution rightfully wears the badge of “governance stakeholder.” 

  • Identifying strategic issues. The big issues facing a school shift slightly from year to year, as does the environment within which the institution operates. And there’s seldom just one, most obvious way to address late-breaking challenges or to grab hold of new opportunities. Board members have their opinions and preferences regarding the best way forward, but so, too, do other stakeholders. Negotiating among the wide-ranging options is an ambiguous and frequently messy process, but seeing it through can help bridge cultural gaps among trustees, faculty members, and administrators — and ultimately improve the institution’s performance. 

  • Clarifying roles. Ambiguity about jurisdictions of authority invariably leads to conflict. That’s why it’s important that partners in the governance process understand both the bylaw-mandated prerogatives and the legitimate interests of the others.

    All governance decisions are not same, just as the primary functions of the stakeholders are not identical. Moreover, taking time to clarify roles and responsibilities does not preclude gray or overlapping areas of authorities. But it does alert institutional leaders that there may be potential trouble spots. 

  • Establishing governance pathways. Governance stakeholders who barrel ahead as if they own every highway both endanger the decision-making processes and annoy other drivers. Making clear who belongs on a particular decision pathway at a particular moment in time is crucial to smoothly functioning shared governance. The rules of the governance roadways should be delineated in handbooks and policy guidelines. It is particularly important to clarify the relationship between the work of campus and board committees that focus on similar issues (for example, the finance committee of the board and a campus-based budget committee). 

On the road together 

The decision to say “yes” to shared governance opens the way to new and imaginative possibilities for advancing a theological school. As Gordon Smith says, “It means, quite simply, that we choose to give priority to the collective vocation and consistently come back to the resolution that our work, our teaching, our research, and our driving concerns are all understood and incorporated within the vocation we embrace together.” 

Forging new governance pathways is not easy, but board members must believe it is worth the effort, for the sake of the students and for the glory that will come to God.

The full text of the 1966 “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities,” a collaborative project of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities (AGB) can be found at http://www.aaup.org/report/1966-statement-government-colleges-and-universities

Defining shared governance

For theological schools, shared governance is defined by the accrediting standards of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS). Standard 8 of the association’s General Institutional Standards calls shared governance “the structure by which participants in the governance process exercise faithful leadership on behalf of the purpose of the theological school.” 

One way we at In Trust have defined shared governance is that it’s a collaborative goal-setting and problem-solving process, built on trust and communication, which involves representatives from appropriate constituent groups who engage in open discussion and timely decision making in areas of institutional performance. Or stated another way, shared governance is the means by which we invite a host of stakeholders into the sacred calling of stewarding a theological school. 

—Rebekah Burch Basinger 

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