Shared Governance: Start Here

by Steve Varvis on October 27, 2014

In this post, I will outline what I think is commonly understood about shared governance in universities, and I will use some examples along the way of how Fresno Pacific practices it. I will also explain how I routinely practice it.  This is difficult given the various ways in which the phrase is used and understood. For this reason shared Governance is a regular topic of articles, reflections of practitioners, blogs, and reports of discussions for professors, administrators, board members, and the public. There are books, resources, and experts, and all of us in the university world try to figure it out, find ways to practice it, and make it work. It is complex, because education and universities are complex and require the professional competence and good will of many individuals and groups.

Shared Governance is a long-standing phrase and practice in higher education. Or, I should say, a variety of practices. If you read, for instance, faculty handbooks and Governing Board bylaws from across the country, you will find a wide variety of statements, policies, procedures and ideals. The standard statement that has been endorsed by many written by the American Association of University Professors provides a balanced perspective. It explains that shared governance is generally understood as recognizing the particular responsibility and expertise of various constituencies within the university. A helpful and very practical illustration is found in accreditation standards. Our regional accreditor, WASC/WSCUC has embedded shared governance into its standards. The standards generally indicate where primary responsibility lies, with the faculty, administration, or governing board, and also those constituents—students, alumni, church, etc.—who have an interest in, or in FPU’s case, love for the university.

Almost uniformly the faculty’s expertise and responsibility is understood to be for academic standards, programs, teaching, and personnel. The faculty typically develop and approve and recommend all academic programs, appointments to the faculty, and promotions. They also have an interest, but not primary responsibility for the budget and other resources (which support their academic work), and for the mission of the university and thus have an important role in recommending budget priorities and in strategic planning. I have deliberately said “approve and recommend” above, which is fairly standard in shared governance discussions, because others are responsible for the prudent use of fiscal resources and for meeting other standards, those of accrediting agencies or governmental departments. Those responsible to meet these, generally administrators, cannot be held responsible if another body has the authority to mandate all final academic requirements, or programs that require investment of resources given competing interests and requirements.

The Governing Board is generally understood (if variously stated) to have the ultimate authority for the operational and academic quality and integrity of the university, its stability and continuing existence—its long term viability—and the achievement of its mission. This is why FPU has a “Board of Trustees,” which is finally responsible for the university itself. The Board is responsible for its financial state and thus approves the annual budget and audit. It is responsible for its academic programs and thus has final approval of all new programs, and can review evaluations of programs and personnel. It grants, upon the recommendation of the faculty and administration, promotions in academic rank, continuing status (our quasi-tenure), and sabbaticals. It also takes an active role in strategic planning and setting goals, setting priorities for the acquisition of property, and the design and placement new buildings and other facilities. The day-to-day and year-to-year responsibility of managing the university the Board delegates to its one employee, the President.

The President appoints an administration and ensures that through that administration the university runs well, serves students and its various publics, achieves it goals, supports the faculty in teaching and scholarship, and makes sure all regulations and standards are met. He or she works through the administration and staff to pursue and achieve the strategic goals of the university. Some administrators, Vice Presidents and Deans for example, have responsibility for large parts of the university, and some for individual departments and particular tasks. Some work with internal operations, and some with external relations. They are responsible also to ensure that the various parts of the work together in an environment that allows great independence and requires good personal judgment. The administration and staff work to find the particular ways of implementing the various tasks and serve the faculty and students. It is difficult, requires a lot of trust, time, and energy making sure everyone understands and supports common purposes and priorities. When it works it is very creative. At other times it can be just plain frustrating. It is not entirely efficient. Some administrators are also faculty members (Deans and Provost and other academic leaders) and some are purely operational professionals.

The administration and individual administrators often (most of the time, it seems to me) stand between the two other main parts of the university’s shared governance, the faculty and board. Their role is to make the university work well, and facilitate the different responsibilities of that shared governance. In my role as chief academic officer, I work with Deans who work with their faculty to create and teach in academic programs that are academically sound, can be supported with the limited resources of the university, and are in line with the strategic directions and vision of it. I work with the faculty as a whole to review and approve academic programs, policies and standards. For this I work with the Faculty Senate and its Executive members. We do not always agree; we compromise when we can; we sometime get what we want, and sometimes we do not. All universities have budgetary limitations, and serve particular populations with expectations for the education they pursue. Most universities and their faculties have high ideals and inspiring missions. The Administration must work to bring these together in the best possible way, to allow the faculty to express and practice its genius, and to ensure that those who study and those who pay for that study (often not the same) receive what they were promised. This is the administration’s special role and responsibility in shared governance.

I have developed a way of approaching my work with these different groups, interests, and creative professionals. I have developed this simple way mostly by learning from others and by trial and error, with the most memorable lessons learned being those when I have not succeeded he first time. When this happens we back up and take a run at it again, the next time perhaps from a different direction. Here is my simple method. Whenever I am presented with a particular question or need to determine direction or policy, I start with the group that has final responsibility.

Why start here? Some issues will require quick action or particular kinds of responses which do not lend themselves to broad or lengthy discussion. Others require decisions by larger bodies (a Senate or Board) but do not affect directly other groups within the university. When a particular body or officer must make a decision, for which they are held responsible, it seems to me that where there is question of further discussion, that body or officer should consider it first. Part of that first consideration is if, where, and from whom it needs further discussion or recommendation. We trust that each of our official committees, Senates, Caucuses, Cabinets, and Board work with good will, and knowing the complexity of the questions we wrestle with will seek appropriate consultation and recommendation. Let me offer a few examples of how I have practiced this simple method.

Currently the faculty is completing a four year project implementing a new system and standards for rank (instructor, assistant professor, associate professor, and professor). The Administration and Board, responding to other agencies and forces within higher education, indicated that this new system would need to be developed and implemented. There were many discussions between faculty, administration and Board; many voices expressed their concerns, positive and negative; not all were happy, but we proceeded together. The faculty itself developed and recommended the standards, policies and procedures. They are the collective body within the university that understands what it is to be a professor, and to pursue teaching and scholarship. This is a central part of their responsibility in shared governance.

The last stage of that process is preparing definitions and standards for scholarship in the various disciplines and schools of the university. The faculty in each of the schools has developed these definitions, the faculty personnel committee (composed of deans and professors, with one or two others) will review, perhaps suggest revisions, and recommend them to the faculty as a whole. The Senate will review, possibly request revisions, and finally approve them in some form. The Board has not yet been engaged in this process, though they are kept informed. They will approve the policy, which will be brought with a recommendation by the President. My role is to shepherd the process, guide it so that it meets the expectations of accreditors, the Board and other professional standards that cross disciplines and schools, ensure that it reflects the special competence and responsibility of the faculty, and make a recommendation to the President. If I do my work well, the faculty will be able to do its work well, and the Board will have the final word to approve a policy that all endorse. Each group in our work of shared governance will have played its part.

Another example: recently an issue arose regarding the safety and security of the university. I, our VP for Operations and the President conferred along with the Executive Cabinet. Because the safety and security of the University is a special concern and responsibility of the Board, the President and I presented it to the Board Executive. At the same time, because the faculty and others on campus have an interest in it—in this case both a practical and theological interest–I asked that the faculty have a chance to speak into the issue. The Board wisely, I think, has asked the President and myself to convene a task force representing all groups within the university to develop a recommendation. In this case, they recognized that it would be difficult to get complete consensus (something we strive for) and so they indicated that they would be willing to receive multiple reports or recommendations. In doing so, they indicated their recognition of the interests of various parts of the university, and their final responsibility for the safety and security of the university as Trustees.

A third example–we are developing a strategic plan which requires the contribution of many. Because whatever plan and goals we pursue must meet the requirements of many constituencies, and will require acquiring and directing additional resources, this effort requires a special expertise and experience with the broader “ecology of higher education,” which includes governmental standards and regulations, the educational marketplace (our competitors and collaborators), as well as alumni, community, and church. This is the special area of responsibility of the administration. The process began under Presidential direction with broad participation, and then with specific areas delegated to administrators. I received responsibility for the academic strategic plan. I in turn worked with our deans to work with their faculty leaders on preparing a general direction, and series of possible specific proposals. The faculty within their departments and schools know better than others the particular trends within their disciplines and the jobs their graduates pursue. But because an academic plan concerns the faculty as a whole and their special responsibility, it has been presented to them as a whole for further discussion and development. In the final tactical stage, the administration and staff will have a large role determining the steps that must be taken to move it forward.

In a rapidly changing educational environment, it will not be easy to get full consensus on what our final direction will be. We don’t always welcome change, and any future we pursue comes with some risk. But the whole university community will eventually be involved. The final plan will be completed with the approval of the President, who will present it to the Board of Trustees for approval. It will be stronger because of the work of shared governance. Each body with a particular responsibility and expertise will have been consulted or have had a hand in shaping the final plan.

This is how shared governance works as I have experienced and practiced it. From our various areas of responsibility we work together, confer widely, trust each other with those co-ordinate responsibilities, fail, try again, and succeed. It takes time, understanding, energy and a willingness to recognize the importance of all in the shared governance of this university with each in its respective domain. When it is all said and done, we achieve our mission, students are educated and achieve their goals to become professionals and leaders, faculty pursue their particular callings of teaching, mentoring, and scholarship with creativity and energy, and what has been entrusted to us has been honored.


The Ecology of Higher Education and Fresno Pacific

by Steve Varvis on October 12, 2014

Trends over the last twenty years have changed our academic environment and the population of students we serve.  This is sometimes referred to as the new “ecology” of higher education. These trends have increased in speed and extent. It is not uncommon to hear one of us say that we have experienced more change in the higher education landscape in the last five years than in the previous twenty or more combined. We have both adapted to and resisted these trends as part of our mission as a Christian University, and as consistent with the ideals of the FPU Idea. We have always balanced both our mission with our market. We have found a way through it all with other sister institutions across the state and country. Let me offer my summary of these trends and something about how FPU has embraced them, adapted, and/or resisted:

  • We have seen consistently growing expectations at all levels, including traditional undergraduate students that the academic value of a university education is measured by completion of degrees that offer entry into or movement within professions. What was once considered primarily a feature of adult education (e.g. Degree Completion and Graduate) has move to the traditional undergraduate populations. This is true of first generation students, whom we enroll now in greater proportions than previously, and of second and third generation students. It is also true within Christian higher education nationally. Where offered programs do not meet students’ expectations for professional entry or growth, they enroll elsewhere. And often the better prepared and focused student, the student with greater options, the ones who might in earlier decades have sought a more general “liberal education,” enrolls elsewhere. We have experienced and adapted to this trend in the expectations of students.
  • Students have gradually taken on the character of customers at the application/enrollment stage of their association with a university, and also when they are in contact with university service offices, or in their academic work. We hear about it when they feel that an academic program is not leading them to their goal, or when an office seems not to serve them as expected, or a professor does not return assignments when expected. In extreme forms this attitude among the public and students seeks courses on demand, and designer or streamlined majors. We continue to adapt to this trend. We have pursued customer service, and have developed policies on how we serve our students.
  •  In California particularly and also in other states as well, student populations have become more ethnically diverse, with greater proportions of first generation students. This has brought to FPU a new population of bright, energetic and intelligent students. Hispanic students especially have become a central population within all degree levels. They bring with them particular expectations and needs for support that must be met for their success. This is true at all levels of our degree programs. We have increasingly learned to meet these needs, and we will continue to gain greater facility in addressing them. FPU began active recruitment of an ethnically diverse student body more than 20 years ago. We are now among the top 10 Hispanic Serving universities in the country for graduation success.
  • Christian higher education has gained in professionalism and stature among American higher education in general. This trend ranges from more competitive athletics, to a greater proportion of professors with terminal degrees, to distinctively Christian institutions developing both professional and research doctorates, to more developed student/spiritual development programs, and more specialized facilities. Professors are expected to engage more consistently in recognized forms of scholarship, and to participate in the extension and application of knowledge. FPU embraced early some aspects of this professionalism with its highly developed School of Education, with multiple credentials and master’s degrees with a clear and distinctive Christian character. The anti-intellectualism sometimes characteristic of evangelical higher education has unfortunately persisted in some quarters, and continues to shape the public perception that Christian institutions might not be academically credible. Increasingly Christian Higher education is done and demanded in a multi- or inter-denominational setting. Single denominations are often perceived as narrow and restrictive. We have seen our student body and the demands placed on us shaped by these trends.  We have embraced them in our development. Christians through the ages have been some of the deepest and most respected thinkers of their ages. It’s more than time that the depth of the Christian intellectual tradition, and the contribution of Christian faith to all fields of scholarship be renewed and recognized.
  • Colleges have become universities with multiple schools, for the arts, sciences and professions, with multiple delivery systems and types of programs. With our Degree Completion programs, Regional Centers, and online courses and majors, we have participated actively in this trend. We moved in this direction earlier than most with Continuing Education and Professional Development courses and workshops. These provide multiple revenue streams. And the multiple types of programs and delivery systems have allowed us to extend our mission to other populations than our traditional graduate and undergraduate populations. We have adopted this extended mission.
  • The professorate is changing, marked by specialization or the “disaggregation” of responsibility. A “subject matter expert” creates courses; some primarily research; others primarily teach. Professors follow alternative career paths with increased program management responsibilities. Universities set by policy a lower proportion of tenured positions than in the past, or discontinue tenure systems. In traditional programs whether graduate or undergraduate mentoring now often takes place through faculty-student research, professional mentoring, and increased use of internships. Administrators and professors are now required to verify that their academic programs produce students prepared for professions and with demonstrated capabilities through standardized, institutionalized assessment systems. Some of these trends are difficult to accept, and require kinds of effort and energy that we might not want to expend.  We have taken on the best of these trends—those that help us be better at what we do–and with other institutions resist some of them. Some of them we resist at great expense, perhaps expense we cannot bear. We will see what the future offers and requires of us.
  • These changes require re-articulation and new understanding of how we construct our majors and programs, how we accomplish our mission, and how we include or blend the best of the liberal arts and Biblical tradition with professional programs. While the public noise about higher education touts vocational outcomes, surveys and reports of the success of liberal arts graduates continue to show greater accomplishment than those trained merely technically or professionally. However, even liberal arts colleges prominently include professional degrees in their curriculums. Our task is to understand, articulate and adapt to this environment while pursuing our mission and the superior form of education we have practiced. Our task is to take the best of what we have been, and ensure that students receive a deeper education while meeting their professional expectations.
  • Because of the demands of the changing educational environment (or ecology), universities increasingly partner with other organizations, including other universities, international agencies, service providers, systems providers, and even academic content providers. WASC (or WSCUC) is developing a policy on what may be “outsourced”—I served on a small committee just his month working to finalize this policy. Universities now cooperate through electronic transmission of student records, in academic programs and in co-curricular opportunities. This trend has increased in intensity as the need for economies of scale, and technical expertise has become more and more evident. It is often no longer possible to create our own system or program. The rate of change and expectations for professional service continue to push us to partner with service providers and other institutions which offer what we need or cannot provide ourselves. We have been slow to adapt and adjust and will have to look carefully at our own capacity and expertise, and engage in partnerships where it is advantageous.
  • Especially in recent years regulatory and reporting demands have increased, much of it tied to institutional eligibility for federal and state financial aid. This is sometimes pushed through accrediting agencies and sometimes directly by state and federal bureaus. Regulatory requirements are widely expected to continue to increase in level of demand and cost, with federal agencies creating their own alternative accrediting procedures and requirements. We have suffered through this ongoing trend, and will continue to develop, comply, and adapt as needed.  We have entered a phase of our history where we are invited to assist in shaping the developing culture of higher education state and nationwide.

When an environment or ecology is characterized by rapid change and new expectations it may appear as daunting, even threatening, and as something to be avoided and resisted.  However, for all of its history Fresno Pacific has adapted to the changing environment and developed new programs and schools that have allowed it to grow and continue to serve our region, communities and churches: Education credentials, MAs, and Continuing Education in the 70s; “Broadening the Base” in the 80s; Degree Completion in the early 90s; growing diversity and becoming a University from the 90s on; regional centers, online programs, BS degrees, and MS and MBAs, more research and other scholarly engagement, and more competitive athletics in the 2000s. We have moved from being an expansive Liberal Arts College to a developing, competitive medium sized Regional University, with sphere of service through multiple centers or campuses, and with our foundation or core in the liberal arts, offering education in the arts, sciences and professions, with multiple degree programs and at multiple degree levels. We are a full and complex organization. All of this experience, the expertise we have gained, the knowledge of our faculty and staff, and our programmatic resources provide us with strength for continued development. We have consistently adapted to this changing environment while remaining rooted in our faith, a long tradition of liberal education and history of service. We will continue to do so with our mission and the aspirations of the FPU Idea guiding us, with commitment to excellence in Christian Higher education, and with faithfulness, wisdom, passion, and creativity.

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