Assessing the State of Shared Governance

Assessing the State of Shared Governance


I love musicals!  As part of my bike riding regiment mentioned in Integrating STEEP Analysis into Planning, the Hamilton soundtrack became my go to playlist (by the way, I listened while this blog was being drafted).  Every time I ride, not only do I gain a better understanding of history and the characters, but I see applications for day-to-day living as well as the parallels to governance in higher education. 

The majority of our institutions subscribe to some form of shared governance in what the Higher Learning Commission outlines as a means for engaging internal stakeholders in collaboration for decision-making through planning, policies and procedures.  We do so to impact student success.  However, even with a commitment to shared governance, the process at many of our colleges and universities is far from perfect and, at times, can be messy or less than precise. Upon exploring concepts for this blog and inspired by practices listed in How to Make Shared Governance Work: Some Best Practices it became clear that the heavy lifting necessary for good governance requires agility, especially during times of change or shifting of strategic priorities, when it might be easier to maintain status quo.

How do we gauge whether or not shared governance is working? How do we strive for continuous improvement beyond the expectations of our accreditors?

The approach each institution uses to assess shared governance may vary. Some may choose to conduct formal surveys. Others might establish a small task force to conduct a deep dive into the process. While others may opt to gather feedback through informal discussions during department meetings or retreats.  Drawing from key questions to be considered for evaluating and enhancing governance, let’s explore the lyrics from Hamilton in an attempt to, “look around, look around… look at where we are, look at where we started…” and determine whether or not our institutions’ current state of shared governance… “would be enough.”

Purpose: The Story of Tonight

“I may not live to see our glory! But I will gladly join the fight! And when our children tell our story. They’ll tell the story of tonight… Raise a glass to freedom. Something they can never take away. No matter what they tell you. Raise a glass to the four of us. Tomorrow there’ll be more of us. Telling the story of tonight. They’ll tell the story of tonight...” 

If shared governance is to be an effective foundation for planning, policy/procedure and programming, what we decide to do now - and the vantage point of those impacted - has to be more than setting boundaries or the rules of engagement.  For those who are currently part of our institutions and who will come in the future, there must be “the story… “ of shared governance that,   when told, outlines a purpose and system in which participants have the freedom to move beyond traditional siloes to shared responsibility for identifying and pursuing sustained direction.  Not only is this revolutionary, it’s evolutionary!  Hamilton, reveals that freedom [to make change] takes time and requires “more of us…” to “join the fight...” So, as you think about how the institutional shared governance story may be told, consider asking:      

  • Does everyone know the purpose of shared governance? Is the purpose statement and corresponding goals/objectives clear? 
  • Does everyone understand how the work of shared governance councils/committees support institutional mission/vision?
  • Does everyone understand the functions and charge of each council or committee?
  • Is there a value of integrated leadership fostered through open communication, and embodied by trust and respect?
  • Does everyone know where shared governance information is located and is it readily accessible?

Engagement: Not Throwing Away My Shot! 

“I’m not throwing away my shot! Hey yo, I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy and hungry and I’m not throwing away my shot! Rise up! When you’re living on your knees, you rise up. Tell your bother that’s gotta rise up, tell your sister she’s gotta rise up… We have to make this moment last… This is not a moment, it’s the movement… Where all the hungriest brothers with something to prove went…” 

To accomplish the development of new ideas, policies or procedures, effective shared governance is key. Individuals must be willing to “rise up...” and actively participate.  There must be a desire to be a part of the change for improvement, no matter how frustrating or time consuming the process may be.  Collaboration at all institutional levels (i.e. Board, administration, faculty, staff, students) with each doing their part through committee work or providing testimony allows the experiences, perspectives, and unique insights of others to be heard.  If constituents are disconnected or “lying in wait…” instead of entering into courageous conversations necessary for rounded decision-making, progress and momentum can be hindered.  As you contemplate how to ensure cross-functional engagement while encouraging folks to “not throw away their shot,” consider asking the following:    

  • Is shared governance membership balanced? Is there an equal amount of faculty and staff represented from the various department areas? 
  • Are newer employees given opportunities to serve or is it just the same list of usual suspects? 
  • Do individuals have the ability to volunteer to serve on councils/committees or are they just appointed? 
  • Does the membership list outline cross-functional areas and term limits? 
  • Does the structure of shared governance foster trust, open communication, and transparency to provide feedback/insights?
  • Does the faculty appropriately exercise its capacity for both adverse and positive decisions?

Diverse Voices: The Room Where It Happens 

“No one else was in the room when it happened, the room where it happened… No one really knows how the game is played, the art of the trade, how the sausage gets made. We just assume that it happens but no one else is in the room, where it happens. … I wanna be in the room where it happens, the room where it happens…” 

Shared governance membership includes people with deep varied experiences, deep insights, opinions, and even biases.  With this in mind, as institutions are expected to address issues of equity and inclusion; it’s critical for leadership to consider “who” is sitting at the table.  Change requires everyone to have “skin in the game.”  However, some constituents (i.e. students, people of color, etc.) won’t have the ability to influence unless invited “to play in the game.”  Since one of the principles of governance is collaboration, the assessment process should identify gaps in representation of those who needs to be “in the room where it [decision-making] happens…” For those responsible for identifying participants, consider the following questions: 

  • Is the student voice being considered?
  • Is there significant representation of the diverse populations from the institution and at various levels? 
  • Are individuals with unique perspectives invited to give testimony? 
  • Is the process for selecting council/committee leadership equitable?

Process: What Comes Next?

“What comes next? You’ve been freed. Do you know how hard it is to lead? You’re on your own… Do you have a clue what happens now? Oceans rise, empires fall, it’s much harder when it’s all your call…” 

The work of shared governance is just that: work!  Implementation of best practices for effective  shared governance, with all the stakeholder perspectives, interconnections, time demands, and other institutional obligations.  Flexibility is a must when “you’ve been freed...” (change occurs, goals must be achieved, decision-making is cumbersome) and everyone isn’t always on the same page.  To maintain the interconnectedness necessary for continued progress and improvement, consider the following questions: 

  • Are meetings scheduled and is information provided in a timely manner? Is it clear to everyone who makes what decisions, who is to be consulted, and who must approve (e.g. curriculum, policies, operational processes, plans, etc.)?
  • What does each constituency expect from effective shared governance? What are the benchmarks of good governance?
  • Do employees believe the shared governance process (from introducing policy to Board approval) is transparent and receive sufficient, understandable information to participate in making good decisions? 
  • Do employees believe that the structure of shared governance is easy to follow and encourages participation? 
  • Is shared governance training provided across the institution? How often?

History Has its Eyes on You

“Let me tell you what I wish I’d known, when I was young and dreamed of glory… I know that we can win, I know that greatness lies in you. But remember from here on in, history has its eyes on you…”

Institutions have made tremendous strides in the application of shared governance.  Yet, as  approaches to higher education evolve, so will shared governance.  Assessment for the purpose of continuous improvement is expected for institutional planning, policy making, and program development. The same is true for shared governance. Knowing that, “history has its eyes on you…” what other questions might be important to explore as we assess the state of shared governance?

Nanette Smith, Rhodes State College

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