A prominent hallmark of higher education that differentiates it from other agencies and corporations is its commitment to shared governance. Shared governance can take many forms and involve students and staff, but at its center it focuses on collaboration with faculty. Faculty involvement in governance is critical to the current academy for a variety of reasons, specifically in that it provides an important check on institutional decision-making, keeping academic and student interests at the heart of the institution.
As corporate-like efficiency and a financial focus have become central to many institutions’ operations, shared decision-making has been compromised. The results have included secret searches for administrators, the elimination of important academic programs due to low enrollment, and the creation of fees that generate revenue and disadvantage faculty and students.
Because shared governance is so critical to the future of the academy, it is important to understand how to make this enterprise work better in the context of today’s pressures for efficiency. The image of a faculty senate comprised of rebellious faculty deliberating on an issue for two or three years without resolution does little to encourage the use of a senate in making institutional decisions. Indeed, if faculty senates are to play a significant role in the future of the academy and reliably advise boards and administrators, they must learn to operate more effectively. These seven actions for faculty senates were identified from both research and practice, and ultimately, their implementation can result in a more robust, forceful, and well-respected faculty senate.
- Define expectations. What is a faculty senate expected to do, and do both membership and senior institutional leaders agree on that expectation? This is a discussion that must be thoughtfully and intentionally arranged, and there must be clear communication about the powers and limits of authority. This agreement is critical to identify what the senate can do and, in turn, what the administration will do with senate recommendations and resolutions. Additionally, administration might have tasks and items that it wants the senate to explore and act on. The overall span of authority, then, needs to be specifically conveyed to every senator and academic leader so everyone agrees about what to expect.
- Clarify communications. Are there regularly scheduled meetings between senate leaders and institutional leaders? Are there meetings scheduled between faculty senate leaders and other shared governance body leaders, such as the student senate and the staff senate? Regular, open, and structured communication is critical both within the senate and in the senate’s relationship with administration and the campus. Although most campuses set regular meetings between senate leaders and administration, many faculty senates do a poor job of getting senators together outside of all-senate meetings to discuss current and future actions, resulting in some cases of disenfranchised and ill-informed senators.
- Set actionable performance goals. Senate leaders must strive to create realistic goals for the entire body. Goals can be endorsing ideas and statements and recognizing individuals on campus, or they can be programming-related, educational, or even action items for the entire campus. Without direction from senate leadership, however, performance goals will often fall into the category of doing the same thing every year.
- Set a realistic agenda. Perhaps senate leadership’s most important role needs to be in crafting a realistic agenda for the senate’s actions, determining what the senate will debate, vote on, and ultimately recommend. Many senates often have a prescribed set of speakers and discussion topics, but before the year even begins, senate leaders should canvass the senate and their constituents and build an agenda that represents the ideas and concerns of the faculty at large. Additional topics may well be handed down from administration, but senators are ultimately responsible to the individuals who elected them.
- Define specific roles. Who is going to do what, and when? Many senates make use of a “committee on committees,” and this process typically works well for assigning responsibilities to faculty from around campus. There are, however, typically a number of standing faculty senate committees, and senate leaders need to charge these groups with tasks and agenda items before the year even begins. Senate leaders can also charge committee chairs with checking on each other, meeting regularly with various administrative offices, and even holding town hall meetings that gather broad input from the faculty at large. Essentially, everyone needs to know and fully understand their role prior to the start of the year.
- Set reporting guidelines. How do we know what everyone is doing? There needs to be regular reporting to not only senate leadership but also the entire senate about the progress various leaders and committees are making in their work. Such reporting can of course be a regular oral update at a meeting, but perhaps more importantly, there should be written updates available to the campus’s entire faculty, perhaps presented in an online format and regularly updated.
- Assess. Did we do what we wanted and needed to do? Senate leaders need to critically assess their actions from the entire year and then bring past years into consideration to look at how the senate is performing. Additionally, assessing the senate’s actions should include external stakeholders, such as the faculty at large, as well as administrators and other shared governance bodies. Annual assessment results must be considered by new senate leaders and should feed into a process of continual evaluation and assessment that helps with future planning.
Faculty senates can be powerful forces in campus decision-making, but they must be thoughtful and intentional in their work. To be taken seriously and garner the influence they need, they must behave in an increasingly strategic manner. This is not something that happens on its own, and those elected to leadership positions must become fully aware of the broad responsibilities and potential their senates have, not simply rely on past years of practice as their mode of operations.
Michael T. Miller, EdD, is a professor of higher education and the David and Jane Gearhart Faculty Fellow at the University of Arkansas, where he previously served as dean of the College of Education and Health Professions. He has served on the faculty senates at three different universities and as the associate dean of the College of Education at San Jose State University and chair of the higher education program at the University of Alabama.
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