Matt / CC BY-SA

July 12, 2020; Roanoke Times

Shared governance—a “tradition unique to the higher education sector”—is imperiled as colleges and universities wrestle with the “brutal math” created by COVID’s shutdown of campuses, long-term shrinking enrollments, and, for public institutions, state funding that never returned to pre-Recession levels. Plus, these same state governments that provide more than half of the public universities’ instructional budgets are now facing an estimated $765 billion shortfall over the next three years.

Take the case of Radford University, a state school in Virginia with nearly 10,000 students that’s now facing the imperative to cut between $5 and $20 million of its $225.7 million budget over the next year. Contrary to the letter and spirit of shared governance, the school’s trustees in mid-June passed a resolution giving the university’s President unilateral budget-cutting powers to “address the challenges associated with the COVID-19 global health pandemic.” This could mean suspending the guidelines laid out in the faculty handbook under “fiscal exigency,” guidelines that call for the president to form an ad hoc committee primarily made up of faculty members to craft a plan, and that give this committee the right to appeal to the governing board if they and the president cannot substantially agree.

The backlash was fierce, from the faculty senate and, most recently, from the American Association of University Professors. Condemning the resolution, the state faculty senate organization criticized it “for its fundamental violation of the principles of academic freedom protected by tenure and shared governance, and for the likely damage this resolution will bring to the integrity of the institution.” The AAUP’s message was much the same.

Is this a prudent move by the university’s trustees, concerned about their fiduciary responsibility to the institution and proactively positioning the administration to take “quick and decisive action” in this financial crisis, as opposed to following the protocol for shared governance outlined in the faculty handbook? Indeed, half of the current trustees—or the Board of Visitors, as they are called—appointed by the Virginia governor are business leaders, not members of academia.

Or is it a fundamental violation of higher ed’s shared governance model outlined in a 1966 statement jointly written by the American Council on Education, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, as well as the AAUP? This statement calls for shared responsibility among the different components of institutional governance and specifics areas of primary responsibility for governing boards, administrations and faculties.

Or is this a sign that shared governance is an outdated and flawed model, too cumbersome and too protective of tenured faculty interests to remain relevant today? AAUP, in its June 29th statement, Principles of Academic Governance during the COVID-19 Pandemic, strongly contends that shared governance is needed now more than ever:

However cumbersome faculty consultation may at times be, the importance and value of such participation become even greater in exigent than in more tranquil times. The imperative that affected faculties be consulted and assume a meaningful role in making critical judgments reflects more than the values of collegiality; given the centrality of university faculties in the mission of their institutions, their meaningful involvement in reviewing and approving measures that vitally affect the welfare of the institution (as well as their own) becomes truly essential.

What we do know is there is that there is wide disparity in how shared governance is understood and practiced in the nation’s colleges and universities, both within and among campuses. That in the best of times, it is a difficult undertaking dependent on transparent communications and trust, time and focus, and training. And that there is a huge information gap between boards and faculty. Less than half of university board orientations include the roles of faculty in governing and the processes of academic decision-making and academic freedom; and conversely, that only 34 percent of independent institutions and 48 percent of public institutions address the roles and responsibilities of the governing board in their faculty orientations.

Radford University’s President Brian Hemphill sought to make amends after the backlash against the Board’s unilateral decision,  appointing two “strategic budgeting advisory groups,” one for academics and one focused on services, to work from July 6th to August 3rd to “look at every single program and every service and figure out what would be some things that we want to look at differently as we reimagine the university.”

President Hemphill reports that he has recently met with more than 750 faculty members to start developing this strategy. And he explicitly talks about shared governance: “I’m optimistic because I know that we’re going to develop a plan and we’re going to execute. Radford’s going to be strong because of the great work of our shared governance leaders.”

But some faculty members are dubious that these advisory committees can make the needed recommendations in the short time span allotted before the trustees meet in August. And the Board of Visitors has not rescinded its decision to give Hemphill unilateral budget-cutting powers.

Though the formal action that Radford’s board took may be unusual among higher ed institutions, COVID has caused at least 218 colleges and universities to unilaterally announce layoffs and furloughs, impacting at least 50,904 employees.  Faculty are protesting across the country, including the University of Wisconsin system, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of Iowa.

One exception is the small, private, and adamantly non-traditional Hampshire College in Amherst, MA where faculty, staff and students collaborated with the administration to create a FY budget that is financially sustainable, makes temporary salary cuts that are progressive (more significant for senior faculty and less so for non-tenured staff), and reduces the salaries of senior administrators to protect resources for faculty research, manage faculty workload, and improve conditions for contingent (adjunct) faculty.

Those of us outside academia who struggle with governance in non-profits of all shapes and sizes will recognize that these issues—boards more focused on business than mission with little understanding of what staff do, staff who have no idea of what the board does, other constituents who at times suspect the priorities of both bodies, the continued call from funders for nimbleness and agility in the face of constant change, and the struggle to find time to reflect and consider—are not unique to higher ed. Decision-making in the best and worst of times for institutions with multiple and diverse sets of stakeholders and multiple bottom lines is a Herculean task.—Debby Warren

Correction: This article has been altered from its initial form to better reflect the number of people with whom Hemphill met and the speed of the backlash.