Participatory/Shared Governance

Today is my six month anniversary as President here at Lansing Community College. What a rewarding half year this has been thanks to the great faculty, students and staff here. One topic that has come up consistently in numerous forums during my time on campus has been shared or participatory governance. We have had great dialogue on this subject. In large meetings, I have been asked about my opinions on governance by LCC Trustees in public Board meetings, as well as by Senators during meetings of the Academic Senate. I’ve also had wonderful conversations with individual faculty and staff here at LCC. During the LCC Presidential search process, one of the many essay questions I submitted as a candidate was on the subject of shared governance. Because this is an important topic of conversation in our college community, I will reprint my essay here. Below is the exact text I submitted with my application materials on May 8, 2020.

Question 3

One of the qualifications in the posting for the position reads: “The ability to maintain open dialogue with students, faculty, and staff, and to encourage an atmosphere of collegiality, shared inquiry, shared governance, responsibility and collective accomplishment.” (a) What is your understanding or view of “shared governance” generally and specifically within the meaning of the Michigan Community College Act, and (b) what has been your experience as a higher education administrator in utilizing or employing “shared governance”? (c) If we were to ask members of the aforementioned interest groups (students, faculty, and staff) about your abilities regarding these matters, what would you expect their responses to be?

The maintenance of open communication with the campus community is a vitally important part of being a successful college president. The tradition of shared governance is a large and fairly complex part of this goal. In short, shared governance does not mean running the college by opinion polling or a majority vote. The statutory authority to operate the college clearly rests with the Board of Trustees and is delegated to the President and executive team. That said, the strong higher education culture of shared governance implies significant stakeholder engagement, active listening and consultation, as well as open discussion of matters of debate and disagreement. For me, this is one of the most engaging and enjoyable daily activities of leading a college. Coupled with learning and listening to what students and the community need from their college, the important work of communicating and building institutional consensus is what makes being a community college president exciting for me.

(a) The term “shared governance” has been an integral part of my community college career for nearly thirty years. I understand the term to mean the cooperative work of a learning community unified around a single mission. The phrase “collective accomplishment” used in the job description is an excellent example. The constituent parts of a college’s work and identity—curriculum, learning outcomes, degree programs, support services, facilities, infrastructure, technology, marketing, etc.—are all designed and produced by teams. Decisions on these important items are often made by stakeholder groups, sometimes in formal governance structures such as committees, departments, or work teams. One of the best articles I have read describing shared governance appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago. Gary Olson writes:

The key to genuine shared governance is broad and unending communication. When various groups of people are kept in the loop and understand what developments are occurring within the university, and when they are invited to participate as true partners, the institution prospers. That, after all, is our common goal (Olson 2009).

Olson’s description is very much in alignment with the qualification quoted from the position description. This concept is also the primary thrust of famous 1966 Statement on Shared Governance written by the American Association of University Professors, American Council on Education, and Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges. This statement hinges on the “joint effort” of the board, president, administrators, and faculty of an academic institution. Rather than making decisions by a majority vote or determination of a particular body within the organization, shared governance intends that the statutory authority invested by a board and delegated to the college president be informed through effective consensus building, communication, and shared vision.

The Michigan Community College Act (PA 331), like the statement on shared governance, was also written in 1966. Focused primarily on the formation, composition, funding, and operation of community colleges in Michigan, the Act is silent on the matter of “shared governance.” Those two words appear nowhere in the law. The power and authority to operate a community college, however, is expressly stated in several sections. MCL §389.123 of the Act explains the powers that reside in the Board of Trustees of a community college, such as owning property, charging tuition, and hiring employees. Likewise, MCL §389.124 of the Act establishes “additional powers” that the Board may delegate to the Chief Executive Officer/President. The Act creates community college districts and provides legislative authority for the “government, control and administration of such districts.”

(b) While the Michigan Community College Act of 1966 does not spell out shared governance, the collaborative nature of community college work is what has kept me in this sector for nearly thirty years. As an administrator, I see it as my job to listen, learn, and engage in the life of the institution in order to lead the college to achieve its mission. This is a true match to my leadership style, which I describe as consultative and collaborative. An extended example of this orientation would be the development and execution of our most recent 2019-2021 strategic plan. While I certainly had a vision and intended direction for this process, I mobilized the opinions, hopes and desires of hundreds of people to create a revised mission and set of comprehensive strategic goals. This began with the Board of Trustees. My team and I built a framework for internal and external stakeholder events where we gathered information on the needs of the community college district we served. We conducted online surveys of students, faculty, staff, and community members. We met and gathered information from businesses, municipalities, community organizations, and elected officials. Using a collaborative process, teams distilled that information into broad categories that became drafts that we presented internally to faculty and staff. After gathering more input, we created a “first reading” of the plan to share with the Board of Trustees for input and revision. After a more formal process, the plan was adopted and became strategic guidepost for the work of the institution. The input and collaboration on the plan was robust, sustained, and genuine. That authority to ultimately adopt it, however, resides with the Board of Trustees, and the responsibility to execute the plan is delegated to the college through the President. To me, this is shared governance. Returning to Gary Olson’s words, it is work that is done through the participation of true partners.

(c) It is my hope that students, faculty, and staff with whom I have worked would be able to cite very specific examples of me keeping them in the loop, asking and acting upon their opinions, and executing the college mission in true partnership with the members of our campus community who actually perform the work. Students might be able to cite examples of sitting down with me to discuss matters of grave importance to them, listening to their concerns and taking them to various bodies within the college for consideration. Faculty could point to policies or decisions on which I provided genuine input.