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Governance and Decision-making in Colleges and Universities


There is no single or generally accepted definition of governance, as it has been described as structures, legal relationships, authority patterns, rights and responsibilities, and decision-making patterns. One commonly given definition of governance is the way that issues affecting the entire institution, or one or more components thereof, are decided. It includes the structure and processes, both formal and informal, of decision-making groups and the relationships between and among these groups and individuals. What distinguishes governance from administrative decisions is that governance tends to be early on in the process and establishes policies. Much of what happens later is administration.

Governance of higher education institutions around the world varies from nation to nation, ranging from direct and detailed control by the central government to laissez-faire, private profit-making enterprises, with many other arrangements in between. This entry will focus on governance patterns of colleges and universities that have emerged in the United States. One of the distinctive features of U.S. governance is the great diversity of forms that have emerged in contrast to other countries, which tend to have great uniformity. Each governance pattern reflects the unique history of the sector and the needs of those specific institutional types. There are several reasons for this diversity within the governance system, which include the absence of a centralized authority for education, strong public and private interests, a lay citizen governing board, and responsibilities that vary for trustees, presidents, and departments among institutions. The distinctive feature of governing boards has allowed for a decentralized system of governance where power and autonomy is distributed. Also, the U.S. governance system has followed the general societal patterns for governance in a democracyrepresentative or collective decision-making often termed shared governance.

Shared Governance

The definition of shared governance has changed slightly over time, but the commonly accepted definition is from the 1966 Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. It identified governance as the joint efforts in the internal operations of institutions, but also characterized certain decisions as falling into the realm of different groups. This statement was jointly formulated by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Council on Education (ACE), and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB).

The statement, although not intended to serve as a blueprint for institutional decision-making, outlines roles for the president, faculty, administrators, and trustees in academic governance decisions. For example, it suggests that issues such as managing the endowment fall to the trustees, maintaining and creating new resources to the president, and developing the curriculum to the faculty. Not all decisions neatly fall into the domain of one of the three groups. It notes that much of governance is (or should be) conducted jointly. In other words, the statement argues that multiple members of the campus should have input on key decisions, a process termed shared governance. Questions over general education policy, the framing and execution of long-range plans, budgeting, and presidential selection should be decided jointly.

This open definition of shared governance is meant to respect the wide differences in history, size, and complexity of American higher education. For example, governance processes at liberal arts colleges are distinctive in that the whole faculty is often involved in governance; at larger institutions such as doctoral-and masters-granting institutions, governance tends to be a representative process through a faculty senate and joint committees. At community colleges, unions are also a key factor in the process. Although academic governance has changed over time, becoming highly participatory in the 1960s and more hierarchical in the 1980s, it has historically retained the notion of the importance of consultation and participation of campus constituents in major decision-making, reflecting democratic principles.

Governance Structure

The governance process is complex and includes many different layers (or groups). Each group differs in levels of responsibility by type of institution, culture of the campus, and historical evolution. Thus, there is no single organizing approach for governance. Trustees and boards have been delegated authority by college and university charters from the state legislature for oversight and decision-making. The legal requirements for boards are typically very loose; they need to assemble with a quorum periodically and oversee certain broad responsibilities. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, boards dominated decision-making, and faculty had little involvement. However, as faculty professionalized in the late 1800s, there was a concerted effort among faculty to obtain greater authority within the decision-making process. As Robert Birnbaum notes, "the reality of governance today is much different than the strict legal interpretation would suggest" with boards having total authority (p. 4).

Even though governance is shared, trustees, governors, boards, or visitors play a significant role. Although holding different titles, these individuals maintain a similar function: to protect and ensure the interest and trust of the institution for the public or for a private group such as a church. The differing names reflect the different sectors and regional traditions. Trustees are more likely to play a custodial role over property and funds, being less involved with academic matters. Governors' roles tend to be more comprehensive and include academic matters. In general, board (this generic term will be used throughout the entry to designate these several different authority groups) responsibilities vary from clarifying mission, assessing president's performance, fund-raising, ensuring good management, and preserving institutional independence. Many boards have authority for ratifying institutional decisions, which can allow them to become involved in administrative details. Board authority varies by institution; thus to understand a particular campus it is necessary to obtain their charter and by-laws. Also, board members can be elected in public institutions or appointed in private institutions. Boards of private institutions tend to be larger than public ones.

Most boards report to another entity; for example, boards of trustees might report to a church while regents report to the legislature of a state. Today, most states have a system-wide coordinating board that campus governors or regents report to rather than directly to the legislature. Up until World War II, 70 percent of public colleges reported to their own board. However, when enrollments increased and there was major growth in the number of higher education institutions, state systems of governance developed. By the mid 1970s, only 30 percent of public colleges answered only to their governing boards.

Boards, trustees, and regents can be made up of very different types of individuals. Trustees are often alumni of the institution, whereas regents are often elected officials representing political party or district interests. Therefore, the perspective brought to the task of governing can vary greatly.

Another key player in governance is the president, who administers the policies set by the board. Presidents' and other administrators' role in governance is to make recommendations to the board and to implement policies. Faculty members, as noted above, became an integral part of governance around the turn of the twentieth century. In 1915 the American Association of University Professors developed a set of principles related to faculty rights, one of which is the right to offer input concerning institutional governance on matters related to academic decisions. Faculty members typically have input on decisions in such areas as employment, research, degrees and degree requirements, courses, evaluating programs, evaluation of faculty, admission, advising, and criteria for obtaining degrees.

Students' involvement in governance also varies by institution. Some boards have student membership. Some states, such as California, now have a law providing for student board membership. Also, most campuses have a student assembly or senate in which members are chosen by election. This body can operate as a governance body, providing recommendations to the president, administration and board. But it is rare for student assemblies to have any formal authority; rather, they are considered as part of the shared governance process.

Campus senates are the most common mechanism for faculty involvement in governance in a systematic way. Senators are elected to their positions from each college or school, making the campus senate a representative body. Most campus senates operate primarily through committees, and are only allowed to make recommendations to the president/administration and board about institutional matters. Several campuses have developed other formal governance structures in order to codify decision-making processes and input. Some campuses have developed joint committees of faculty, students, and administrators that develop recommendations for action on key institutional issues.

What are the areas in which governance decisions tend to be made? Policy setting areas tend to include mission, strategic direction, and selection processes for administrators, faculty, and staff; budgeting and expending funds; procedures related to construction of buildings; academic programs including degrees, course, admission, and graduation; promotion, tenure and salary increments; athletic programs; student matters; research, grants, and contracts; parking, security, and other services; and public relations.

External Influences

Although not formally part of campus governance, outside forces such as state governments, alumni, donors, federal government, accreditors, and associations often affect governance processes through funding, persuasion, policy, and guidelines. These other groups are important to acknowledge, even if their influence is infrequent and not formally defined by a charter, statement, or set of principles. Legislatures use budget allocation as a way to influence campus decision-making outside the formal governance processes. Individual donors might ask to have a say in certain institutional decisions in exchange for a monetary contribution to the institution. The federal government can establish rules and regulations that indirectly affect campus decision-making. For example, regulations about affirmative action have had an effect on campus admissions decisions and policies. Accreditors and associations probably have the least direct influence on campus governance. Accreditors, for example, can define requirements for a certain field of study. These requirements influence the decision-making processes at campuses that want to retain their accrediting status.

Trends in Governance

There are several trends in governance that are important to highlight: (1) the growth of external influences; (2) inability to respond to external challenges;(3) the lack of prominence and move away from shared governance; and (4) decreasing participation. These forces are related: The growth of external influences is coupled with institutions' trying to alter decision-making processes that were originally internally oriented to be more externally oriented. The lack of participation, among faculty in particular, is related to a move away from the tradition of shared governance.

Many commentators have noted that external agents are less reluctant to enter the decision-making process than in the past, even at the final stages. In addition, higher education is in the midst of a shift from its tradition of informal, consensual judgments to standardization, litigation, and centralization. Societal and legislative expectations have been altered, focusing more on accountability, quality, and efficiency. As Kenneth Mortimer and Thomas McConnell note, "the increased influence of state coordinating boards and system level administration in the last twenty years has moved decisions further away from campus based constituents." (p. 165). Boards and presidents now find themselves acting more as buffers to outside forces than in the past.

The intense environmental demands on higher education place great responsibility and strain on institutional leaders to make difficult decisions in a timely manner. The substance of academic governance has changed; traditional "maintenance" decisions, which include items such as the allocation of incremental budgets, modifications to the curriculum, and issues of faculty life, are being replaced with "strategic policy-making" decisions. These new decisions are high stakes challenges related to the changing nature of scholarship, prioritizing among programs, choosing among new opportunities, and reallocating either shrinking or unchanging (not growing) budgets. Current decision-making systems (e.g., academic senates) were not created to cope with these types of decisions and demands. These traditional academic governance structures are facing a cascade of criticism, describing them as being slow and ineffective. Campus senates and other joint administrative-faculty committees need to design processes to resolve unprecedented problems from the changing environment.

Although shared governance has been the norm for the last century, several commentators have noted that there are problems with shared governance that can no longer be ignored, including the following: (1) it does not actually represent or describe governance patterns in the majority of institutions; (2) it ignores the conflict of interests and adversarial decision-making practices inherent in a major new governance structurecollective bargaining; and (3) it takes in little account of the external forces. It is noted that shared authority only exists at a few elite institutions with powerful faculty, and that administrative authority is foremost at most institutions. Also, it is noted that there are few shared goals at most institutions, the principle that shared governance is built upon. Faculty and students are divided into different interest groups, making self-governance difficult with minimal consensus on issues. Thus, in practice, shared governance is usually not possible.

At the same time, academic governance is becoming less participatory, as fewer individuals care about or are involved in academic governance. Current trends work against widespread academic governance participationfewer full-time faculty are employed, participation is not rewarded, other demands take precedence, and faculty allegiances favor disciplines rather than institutions. There is concern about institutional effectiveness, morale, and the quality of decision-making. Because of the complexity of institutional issues, well-considered decisions should be based on a high degree of input and thought, usually achieved through participation of multiple constituents. Institutions may jump to poor conclusions since decisions do not benefit from a thorough examination of the issues or multiple perspectives.

There are many challenges in governance that need to be resolved in the twenty-first century: perhaps new structures and governance forms will be applied to higher education, as developed in the last century, with the emergence of shared governance, campus senates, and state-wide coordinating boards.

See also: Board of Trustees, College and University; Colleges and Universities, Organizational Structure of; Faculty Senates, College and University; Presidency, College and University.


American Association of University Professors. 1995. Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities. Washington, DC: American Association of University Professors.

Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. 1996. Renewing the Academic Presidency: Stronger Leadership for Tougher Times. Washington, DC: Association of Governing Boards.

Berdahl, Robert O. 1991. "Shared Academic Governance and External Constraints." In Organization and Academic Governance in Higher Education, 4th edition, ed. Marvin W. Peterson, Ellen E. Chaffee, and Theodore H. White. Needham Heights, MA: Ginn Press.

Birnbaum, Robert. 1991. How Colleges Work: The Cybernetics of Academic Organization and Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Carnegie Commission. 1973. Governance in Higher Education: Six Priority Problems. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Dill, David D., and Helm, K. P. 1988. "Faculty Participation in Policy Making." In Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, vol. 4, ed. John C. Smart. New York: Agathon.

Dimond, Jack. 1991. "Faculty Participation in Institutional Budgeting." In Faculty in Academic Governance: The Role of Senates and Joint Committees in Academic Decision Making, ed. Robert Birnbaum. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Keller, George. 1983. Shaping an Academic Strategy. In Academic Strategy: The Management Revolution in American Higher Education, ed. George Keller. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lee, Barbara. 1991. Campus Leaders and Campus Senates. In Faculty in Academic Governance: The Role of Senates and Joint Committees in Academic Decision Making, ed. Robert Birnbaum. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Mortimer, Kenneth P., and McConnell, Thomas Raymond. 1979. Sharing Authority Effectively. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Schuster, Jack H., and Miller, Lynn H. 1989. Governing Tomorrow's Campus: Perspectives and Agendas. New York: American Council on Education/Macmillan.

Schuster, Jack H. ; Smith, Daryl G. ; Corak,Kathleen A.; and Yamada, Myrtle M. 1994. Strategic Governance: How to Make Big Decisions Better. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Westmeyer, Paul. 1990. Principles of Governance and Administration in Higher Education. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas Publishers.

Adrianna Kezar

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