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  • Making Shared Governance WorkStrategies and Challenges
  • Mary McAleer Balkun (bio)

In the last decade, an increasing number of articles have appeared decrying the state of shared governance on American campuses, with the latest critique appearing in February 2011 in the Chronicle of Higher Education: in “Shared [End Page 562] Governance Is a Myth,” John Lachs argues that “faculty influence on the operation of the university is an illusion” that becomes evident to faculty members only after “years of rank and the bitter sweet experience of extensive committee service.” Unlike those who simply blame administrators for this situation, Lachs ascribes it to changes that have resulted in higher education being perceived as a business as opposed to “a community of students and scholars.” This position is not a new one, but it has become more evident of this especially challenging economic environment, one in which tenure has come increasingly under attack, the number of untenured faculty has grown exponentially, and the competition for limited students and even more limited resources has become intense.

Yet while it has been a time-honored tradition in academia, the shared governance model has always had its problems, not least of which is the very nature of the faculty who must work with administrators if the model is going to succeed. Governance of any kind — shared or otherwise — is not a game for the impatient or the partially engaged. As scholars, we are used to identifying a problem, investing ourselves deeply in it for a certain period of time, developing possible solutions, and then presenting our findings to a community of like-minded thinkers who may disagree with us but who respect the process and respond on equal terms. We then move on to the next intellectual engagement. This is, of course, at the furthest possible remove from the process of shared governance, and it is the process on which we must focus, since that is where most of the difficulties lie. It is only by thinking carefully about the process as it exists today — with its inherent flaws, obstacles, new challenges, and changing players — that faculty can have any hope of creating and nurturing a culture of shared governance on their campus. If the model is going to work — and it still does in many places, albeit better in some than in others — faculty must do what they do best: pay close attention, do their homework, venture fearlessly into new territory, learn how to deal with systems that can seem arcane and even willfully obstructionist (remember what it took to get that dissertation approved and then bound?), and then share the results with others.

Some context for these observations seems both appropriate and necessary, given that my own institutional experience is of shared governance that has become increasingly functional and even influential in the last ten years. Seton Hall University is the oldest Catholic diocesan university in the United States. Located in South Orange, New Jersey, it consists of seven schools and colleges, as well as a law school housed in Newark. Both by inclination [End Page 563] and by necessity, we are committed to shared governance. As Susanne Palmer (1999) notes in the abstract for her essay “A Brief History of Collective Bargaining in Higher Education,” the U.S. Supreme Court’s Yeshiva decision of 1980 “limited the ability of faculty in the private sector to unionize. The court ruled that the roles of the faculty members constituted managerial activities. This decision applies only to private sector schools and not to public institutions.” There were several unsuccessful attempts by faculty at Seton Hall to appeal this decision, especially in the face of what seemed like blatant administrative disregard for faculty concerns. Thus, we have had to make shared governance work, and we have gotten better at it, both because of and despite a number of institutional challenges.

Administrative instability has been the chief of these challenges. With the exception of the university president, who stepped down in 2010 after serving for fifteen years, as well as a few members of his cabinet, we have experienced rather dizzying administrative turnover in the last fifteen years. The university has had eight provosts since 1995; the...


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