For Colleges to Succeed, Faculty Must Become Students

In our new book —How to Run a College: A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators and Policymakers — Dr. Joey King and I lay out the case for revitalizing the shared governance structure under which higher education institutions operate. We see governance, especially at the trustee level, as a significant impediment to the sustainability of these institutions.

We believe that most of America’s colleges and universities are sustainable and sufficiently nimble to adapt to the daunting changes in financial support, demographics, technology adaptation, and consumer preference that is now sweeping over them. We note that those that prosper in future years will not necessarily be the best endowed since these may not recognize the dangers to them until it is too late.

In the end, good planning, better data, creativity and entrepreneurialism, and courageous and conservative stewardship will determine the higher education winners and losers.

And there will be winners and losers. American higher education will not likely face a single “day the dinosaurs died” moment. But it will see the level of mergers, acquisitions, and closures increase — more incrementally perhaps but with devastating potential effect.

Some of this change is inevitable in a competitive environment. But much of it is avoidable, depending upon whether key stakeholders, including state and federal politicians, recognize that every academic enterprise is also an economic engine that fuels the local, state, regional and national economy.

Colleges’ and Universities’ Survival Depends on Quality of Governance

In our book, we suggest that the most critical impediment to institutional survival is the quality of governance. While we assert that trustees are the weakest link in the chain, we also suggest that there is a need to grow and nurture administrative talent.

Shared governance also has a third player, however, that is critical to the success of how trustees exercise budget and program oversight and how the administrative team manages the shop. This group is the faculty who are the “keepers of the flame” and whose longevity most profoundly impacts the direction of any higher education institution.

Faculty Governance Must Be Clearly Defined and Understood

At some colleges and universities, the faculty role in governance is well understood. They operate according to established processes defined by effective protocol and are timely and efficient in the discharge of their contributions to institutional strategy and tactics.

But at many institutions, the faculty’s role is unclear, more adversarial and divisive than it needs to be, and lacks clarity and definition. It is in these cases where the value of healthy skepticism among key stakeholders in governance often deteriorates into an ongoing stand-off leading to debilitating campus inertia.

There is a hard, cold truth to governance: Colleges and universities thrive when the people, programs, and facilities come together.

The faculty have a decisive role to play, therefore, because their responsibility is to execute and safeguard the academic program. This program is the heart of the educational enterprise. It demonstrates the value proposition that higher education institutional leaders espouse as the reason for what they do.

Faculty are no more — or less — important in shared governance than their trustee and administrative partners. Indeed, the ability of any college to thrive rests in large part on the willingness of the faculty to understand and exercise their role as governors.

But the ducks must be in order. Many faculty see themselves as independent artisans. Their training as specialized researchers and the mechanisms to promotion and tenure supports this view. Sometimes this creates a healthy tension within the faculty between their role as solitary craftsman and their contributions to the community. Many institutions do not sufficiently reward faculty, for example, as governance stakeholders in the “service” categories shaping promotion and tenure decisions.

Further, a long-term lens colors decisions within the faculty-led campus community to encourage collegiality and respect and to elevate process. Change on most college campuses is incremental. Too much change — even when mutually agreed to by key stakeholder groups — can be disruptive and unsettling.

Faculty Must be Students of Governance and Take Role Seriously

Yet much of the problem centers on how effectively the faculty organize and govern themselves, the broader definition of the faculty’s role in governance, and the education and preparedness that appointed and elected faculty representatives enjoy when weighing in on the business side of America’s colleges and universities.

The glue that holds together shared governance is transparency, especially if the faculty governance structure works. To do so, the faculty must be permitted to govern themselves. They must be prepared to do so.

The sustainability — and ultimately the survival — of a college will depend on how nimble and adaptable a college becomes and how it demonstrates why it should continue. This begins with how well the faculty lay out the case for the academic program.

To do so, the faculty must organize efficiently with administrative oversight shaped by their internal management practices. Their success will depend in large part on how well their elected representatives learn about the college’s opportunities and challenges. Regardless of their scholarly discipline, they must become students of the institution’s operations.

And it mandates a respect from trustees and administrators that presumes they treat elected faculty representatives as colleagues and equals from whom much can be learned and on which everything depends.

“Embracing Change” is an occasional newsletter for higher education leaders