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Shared Governance: We’re All in This Together

By Dr. Lynn Tatum, senior lecturer in Baylor’s Honors College

All great universities are built upon two great ideas. The first and most famous is academic freedom. The second is not as well known, but is no less important: shared governance. Academic freedom, the right to pursue truth wherever it leads, is only possible in the context of shared governance.

The classic exposition of shared governance can be found in a short, but foundational document titled: “Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities.” This document was the joint product of the American Association of University Professors, the country’s preeminent professional organization for faculty; the Association of Governing Boards of Colleges and Universities, the professional organization of trustee boards; and the American Council on Education, the professional organization of presidents. In other words, this statement represents the joint wisdom of faculty, boards, and presidents on what professional standards should be used in governing colleges and universities.

That presidents, faculty, and boards can all agree on sound governance practices is of crucial significance. For while universities have multiple stake-holders (students, alumni, donors, staff), the decision-making falls to these three entities: the regent board, the president, and the faculty.

Three Governing Entities: Regents, President, and Faculty

Regent board members are tasked with the “big picture” decisions. Board members decide whether Baylor will be church-related or not or whether the school will focus on undergraduate education, graduate education, professional education, or a mix. Regents also decide whether Baylor will focus on low-income students, high academic achievers, or Baptist students. Regents set the general direction of the university, and they have the ultimate responsibility for defining and maintaining the mission of Baylor.

Presidents make decisions concerning the day-to-day running of the university. Presidential decisions range from deciding how to fund a $100-million science complex to how to organize the university record-keeping system. The president is the chief planning officer of the university, the chief administrative officer, and in many ways is the “face” of Baylor. Every day, the Baylor president and his or her staff make the hundreds of decisions that are necessary to keep Baylor operating and running smoothly. The president raises money, manages an approximately $1-billion endowment, and makes sure the payroll is met. Baylor, with almost 14,000 students and thousands of faculty and staff, is the size of a small city. The president has to keep it all running.

Faculty members are at the heart of the university because they perform the university’s core mission: transmitting knowledge (teaching) and discovering new knowledge (research). Because they are the recognized experts in their disciplines and professions, they should make all the decisions related to teaching and research. Faculty members should determine degree requirements, academic standards, course offerings, textbooks, grading systems, who can take these courses, and who can teach these courses.

This last element of faculty responsibility deserves special comment. One of the most important, cherished, and ancient of all rights of the faculty is to choose who should be on the faculty. The faculty who hold PhDs in biology–not the president, and certainly not the regents–should be selecting who should be on the biology faculty. At Duke University (where I received my PhD), the president would no more think about telling the surgeons in the medical school who can wield a scalpel, then I, as a religion professor, would think about telling the faculty in the music school about who should wield the conductor’s baton.

Two Principles of Shared Governance:

Many aspects of the university fall clearly under the jurisdiction of one or another of these three governing entities. However, there are aspects of the university that cross the boundaries between president, regent, and faculty. For example, if the regents decide to expand (or contract) enrollment, that will impact upon how the president will structure financial aid; for the faculty it will affect class size and admissions standards. In other words, the decisions made by either the regents, the president, or the faculty often have significant impact upon other aspects of the university. We are all interdependent. So how is this interdependency negotiated? Two principles come into play:

1. Good Communication Leads to Effective Collaboration: At great universities, faculty, regents, and presidents communicate and do it effectively. Presidents are vital in this endeavor, as they have the professional responsibility to maintain the lines of communication. Different universities do it differently, but many private universities have faculty members as actual or as ex officio members of the board. (Unfortunately, Baylor does not.) It is particularly important to have faculty input on the regents’ Academic Affairs committee.

Because decisions can have unintended consequences, and because the university is so interdependent, decisions need to be jointly vetted. An innovation that appears entirely positive to the president may, in fact, have negative consequences for the faculty’s ability to teach or research. The converse can also occur. So what happens when faculty want the switch turned “on,” but the president wants the switch turned “off”? Who gets to decide? Here we come to our second governing principle.

2. Authority Should Follow Responsibility: The basic idea here is that the entity with primary responsibility should have “primacy” in the decision-making process. Since the president has the responsibility to make sure that employee records are accurately maintained, then the president should have the primary voice on what record-keeping system should be purchased and who should be hired to maintain it. Since the faculty are responsible for designing the curriculum and teaching the courses, then they should have primacy in hiring faculty and in making tenure decisions.

To be sure, under the laws of the State of Texas, the regents have the ultimate legal authority over almost all decisions of the university. However, having the legal right is not the same as having a moral right or a professional competence. On issues related to the academic programs of the university, the regents (and the president) should concur with the faculty’s judgment. According to the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, exceptions should only be made “in rare instances and for compelling reasons.”

In conclusion, if the three governing entities–faculty, president, and regents–recognize and respect each other’s spheres of authority, if they communicate openly and collaboratively, if they defer to each other when appropriate and listen to each other always, then Baylor will maintain the great tradition of excellence that has been its hallmark.

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