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Shared Governance: What Does It Mean in Our Rapidly Changing World of Higher Education?

Institutional Culture

Shared Governance: What Does It Mean in Our Rapidly Changing World of Higher Education?

Four people conversing at a meeting

Although shared governance is widely recognized as a foundation of higher education, there remains a striking diversity of opinion regarding exactly what shared governance means and how it should be practiced at specific colleges and universities. In other words, has shared governance become merely a catchphrase that has radically different meanings for different people?

Discussions within the halls of private and public universities in the United States speak loudly to the changing dynamics affecting the academy. Higher education is evolving into a corporate culture where business concepts that equate students with customers and faculty with stakeholders are the norm. The emphasis on profitability means faculty are expected to “do more with less,” with increased workloads, decreased support, and more rigorous standards for tenure and promotion. In this era of the corporate university, brought about by decreased funding from local and state governments, the basic tenets of shared governance are more important than ever before. Yet the growing sentiment among my colleagues is that the principles of shared governance are increasingly disrespected and in need of clarification. Additionally, some might argue that these principles are in steep decline and being attacked internally in some institutions of higher education and externally by powerful interest groups.

Never has the need for effective academic governance been greater than in today’s rapidly changing and increasingly challenging environment. Rising expectations for tenure and promotion leave faculty with less time to actively and effectively participate in shared governance. Of course, widespread uncertainty regarding the future of higher education is not new. Nevertheless, given rapid changes affecting everything we do in higher education, some stakeholders are pushing to reopen debates that others thought settled long ago.

Although some colleges and universities coalesce around a theme of shared governance, administrators often complain that faculty mostly ignore opportunities to get involved in decision-making and become involved only when they object to a specific proposal (Association of Governing Boards, 2001; Birnbaum, 2004). Faculty who are active in governance echo the view that their colleagues do not offer enough support and are not sufficiently involved, but they also complain about administrative encroachments on their prerogatives (Rhoades, 2005).

The core principle of shared governance is that faculty and administrators both have important and clearly defined roles in setting university policy. However, is shared governance simply a fancy catchphrase? Does the term have different meanings for different people? Is there unanimous meaning by faculty, administration, and board of trustees? Do key stakeholders have clearly defined responsibilities concerning shared governance?

Concepts of shared governance

Is shared governance a fundamental principle of inclusion in key areas of institutional responsibility and decision-making? Is shared governance best described as a set of guidelines about the various roles and authority of the board, faculty, and administration in academic, budgetary, and other operational decisions?

In 2005, the University of Arizona stated the following regarding shared governance (emphases mine):

The success of the University and the positive morale of the faculty and administration are dependent upon continued use of the collective intelligence of the university community. . . . This requires extensive sharing of information and a shared understanding that faculty representatives and administrations strive always for informed mutual support through shared governance dialogue.

 Core doctrines of shared governance reveal the following:

  • Quality education and scholarship are strengthened in a genuine culture of shared governance.
  • Shared governance involves discussion.
  • Shared governance activities include collaboration.
  • Principles of shared governance emanate from the belief that faculty are in the best position to shape and implement the curriculum.
  • Shared governance provides opportunities for all stakeholders to participate in decision-making.
  • Shared governance serves as protection from a too-powerful administration.
  • Shared governance functions as a collective voice representing a significant assortment of views.
  • Shared governance helps create a climate in which participation and engagement are valued.

A healthy shared governance model clearly states the following:

  • The question before the community
  • Who has the right and responsibility to provide input
  • Who has the authority and responsibility to process the input and determine the outcome (or in some cases make the final recommendation to the board of trustees or directors)

Faculty insist that responsibility for the curriculum is inarguably theirs alone. But it is logical that more input is needed from administrators regarding the curriculum: What if additional resources are needed? Will a curriculum change require a budget increase? Will a faculty line or lines be needed? Will this necessitate a fully equipped laboratory? Administrators need such information, which can come only from the faculty.

Final thoughts

Quality instruction and scholarship strengthen in a genuine culture of shared governance. It is noted and emphasized that shared governance involves collaborations, collegiality, and institutional excellence. A sense of shared responsibility and ownership are promoted and encouraged, and the establishment, maintenance, and strengthening of academic freedom are provided for. Shared governance should be developed to facilitate and support freedom of thought, inquiry, and scholarly and artistic expression.

Clearly, faculty possess knowledge in greater depth than administrators in academic policy, curriculum, merit pay, reappointments, tenure, and promotion. Thus, faculty make recommendations about the above to administration. The president enjoys the final authority to make decisions. Where administration rejects faculty decisions where faculty are considered the professionals with advanced education and training knowledge the administration should provide compelling detailed reasonsfor overturning faculty decisions.


Association of Governing Boards. (2001). Board basics: AGB statement on institutional governance. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

Birnbaum, R. (2004). The end of shared governance: Looking ahead or looking back. New Directions for Higher Education, 2004(127), pp. 5–22. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Rhoades, G. (2005). Capitalism, academic style, and shared governance. Academe, 91(3), 38–42.

Robert Cipriano, EdD, is professor emeritus at Southern Connecticut State University and senior partner in ATLAS: Academic Training, Leadership, and Assessment Services, an international consulting business in academic training in higher education. Cipriano will present on shared governance at the Leadership in Higher Education conference in St. Louis in October 2019.


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