Allison M. Vaillancourt

Vice President, Business Affairs & Human Resources and Professor Practice, School of Government & Public Policy at The University of Arizona

Why Administrators Should Love Shared Governance

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Image: Together We Win, NARA (Wikimedia Commons)

Each fall ahead of its annual meeting, the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources offers a workshop on “Understanding Higher Education.” Once again, I am co-facilitating the daylong session, which is designed for people new to academe.The program focuses on academic lingo, trends, and traditions, and on the one concept that tends to baffle newcomers the most: shared governance.

If past workshops are any indication, I can predict the responses we will receive when we meet in late September and ask our icebreaker question, “What has surprised you most?” Participants will say things like:

* “It takes forever to get things done.”

* “I can’t believe I have to check in with so many people.”

* “I’m used to writing a memo to announce changes, but that doesn’t seem to be an option now.”

* “I was hired to be a decision maker, why can’t I just decide?”

From there, the conversation could easily devolve into a rant about academic bureaucracy, the impossibility of pleasing multiple stakeholders, and the absurdity of letting faculty (“people with no business experience!”) have a significant say in running large, complex organizations.

But that won’t happen. That’s because we will quickly pivot into a spirited discussion of how shared governance can actually make an administrator’s life much easier.

My university takes shared governance seriously. When we’re making policy, for example, we have an established and methodical process for gathering and assessing campus opinion. It’s not unusual to receive a few hundred messages when we advance a new idea and many are quite helpful.Comments tend to be thoughtful and many are accompanied by relevant research studies or references to other models we ought to consider. I think of it as crowd sourcing our way to better administration.

Convincing newcomers of the value of shared governance is no easy task because this approach to managing organizations is not obviously sensible. When you are used to a hierarchical environment, it is easy to think that top-down decision making is practical and efficient, not to mention an important way to demonstrate who’s in charge. And we know that many onlookers, trustees, consultants, and corporate types argue that shared governance is inefficient: “Why are you asking everyone for their opinion? Decide already.”

But those who claim that shared governance impedes progress fail to appreciate the value of collective intelligence. Is a little extra time on the front-end to make sure everyone is on board smarter than weeks of cleanup after a program or policy has been adopted? I think so. It’s not that hard to create an efficient and effective structure for advancing and debating ideas, and the results are generally much better when an idea has been widely vetted.

In my experience, those who argue most vehemently against shared governance are people who lack a basic understanding of organizational politics, group dynamics, and the benefits of building trust-based relationships. So, to be perfectly blunt, if you’re an administrator having trouble getting things done, consider that the problem is you or your decision-making architecture, not your faculty senate.

Autocratic decision-making is inconsistent with leading large groups of smart people – or really any groups at all. Administrators who embrace shared governance understand that harnessing internal wisdom consistently produces better results.

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