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Shared governance

The term shared governance is regularly used to describe the type of governance that happens (or should happen). It reflects the idea that the different constituencies [1] on campus can come together to share in the governance of the institution.

Communications recently posted President Kington’s thoughts on shared governance [2]. I find his comments disappointing, particularly in light of the discussions that Dean Latham and Faculty Chair Rietz have led on the issue. However, rather than responding to President Kington’s comments directly, I’ll describe my own views on shared governance. I’ve written about shared governance once or twice before. However, it seems worth revisiting them.

Shared governance begins with common goals. I hope that all of the constituencies share a goal of providing a top-notch liberal arts education for a diverse group of excellent students regardless of their ability to pay [3]. Different constituencies may approach that goal from different perspectives. The Trustees may approach it from a fiduciary perspective; they have a responsibility to ensure that we can continue to provide that education for the foreseeable future. The faculty has the responsibility to design the academic aspect of that education. Many administrators and staff design and carry out the co-curricular aspects of that education. Others help support it through the day-to-day support of the infrastructure of the institution or the people on campus.

But these roles are not separate. Shared governance is necessarily consultative and deliberative. As President Kington suggests, decisions should be made in the context of the bigger whole. Hence, different groups should consult others to reflect on the impact or adjustments associated with different ideas or approaches. Consultation and deliberation are difficult and time-consuming, but they are necessary. They are what it means to share in shared governance. That is, we share not by dividing, but by collaborating.

Sharing requires respect and trust. It seems pointless to ask someone for their opinion if you will not respect that opinion. And people must be able to trust not only the decisions (and decision-making process of others) but also that appropriate consultation will happen.

I agree with President Kington that shared governance at Grinnell needs work. But my perspective on what kind of work it needs seems very different. Too many decisions seem to be made without broad consultation or open discussion. Even when there seems to be consultation, it is sometimes ignored, with no clear rationale for doing so other than a claimed sense of expediency. It strikes me that we have seen shared governance undermined by folks who are not willing to deal with the time and effort of consultation and deliberation. It may also be undermined by people who do not understand or do not value shared governance. I am not sure of all the causes; I just know that we have difficulty.

Do I think there’s hope? I do. The Trustees were on campus this past weekend and it’s clear to me that we share a deep love of this institution and a goal of educating our students in the liberal arts. I know that my colleagues in Student Affairs, Admissions, CLS [4], and other offices on campus make our students their top priority [5]. We may differ a bit on approaches and priorities [6], but we agree on the overall goal. However, given how things have been going, the conversations on shared governance need to continue and need to incorporate a broad spectrum of campus.

[1] At Grinnell, I think of those constituencies as the administration, the faculty, the non-administrative staff, the Board of Trustees, and the students.

[2] Here’s the text of the page.

President Raynard S. Kington discusses the culture of shared governance

Traditionally, [President] Kington said, shared governance on campus was based on a system of relationships guiding interactions of shared governance toward a transactional model, where every single thing becomes [political] so it moves away from this relationship that every decision is put in the context of the whole and multiple decisions together into a situation where everyone is trying to win at each turn and best everyone else to score points.

This is largely determined by culture, and culture’s a hard thing to change and to establish, he said, adding that the current trend of shortened tenures of presidents isn’t helping matters, because it takes years to develop these relationships.

Not only that, but in the culture of every man for himself and individual wins, there is a tiny little slice of every single constituency that’s not going to be nice, that’s going to send you really mean emails and say really mean things, and though they’re just a fraction of the overall stakeholder population as a whole, Kington said he’s seen over and over how that handful can distort the whole convo and sort of recognize that often because, and this is a reflection of the world we live in, people feel authorized to say and do a number of things [via email or social media] that they’d never say to your face.

[3] I realize that the mission statement provides what should be the core shared goals of the institution. But I find it useful to have a one-sentence summary.

[4] CLS is Careers, Life, and Service. I did not want to figure out the appropriate punctuation I would need to use if I wrote it out.

[5] Or, in the case of Admissions, make bringing new students to campus their priority.

[6] For example, I would say that some faculty members prioritize the academic experience over all other aspects of their time at Grinnell, while both CLS and Student Affairs have a broader, more holistic vision that includes co-curricular activities and post-graduation planning. Although I support that broader vision, there are also times I find that it does not sufficiently acknowledge the core role of the academic side. Those are normal contrasts of opinion and can be addressed by open and shared dialog.

Version 1.0 of 2018-02-03.