Some Reflections on Shared Governance
I hope you enjoyed the summer and find yourselves renewed with energy and enthusiasm as we embark upon the new academic year.
Shared governance is a timely topic for us to consider. It surfaced in the recent AD-14 review of the dean’s office, and I find myself encountering it in numerous contexts these days. I share some thoughts below and welcome your reactions.
You may be aware that the University recently created a number of Coordinating Councils as part of its strategic plan. The Council that is the most immediately relevant to us is the University Park Academic Review Coordinating Committee (UPARCC), a broadly representative group that includes faculty members and academic administrators. While we sometimes think of ourselves as a relatively autonomous College where we govern our own affairs, the reality is that we exist within the context of the larger University and are highly dependent on the central University for our resource base. It is accurate to see these coordinating councils as an effort on the part of the University to hold academic units a bit more accountable for the efficacy and efficiency of their operations. The conversations and interactions I have had with the UPARCC have all been very positive, but it is abundantly clear that the Council is going to push for changes in all University Park colleges that it feels are in the best interest of the larger University. What makes this an instructive experience in shared governance is that the views of the UPARCC may be different from what we would come up with if we were left on our own. We will be receiving a report from the UPARCC shortly and I am planning to share the results broadly within the College. We will be relying on the Faculty Council to help us sort through and develop our response to the recommendations we will be receiving.
The Interface with Campuses
A second illustration of shared governance involves instances where we extend academic programs and offer them at campus locations. In this regard, there is history that can add confusion to the balance that needs to be struck. Prior to the early 1990s, the University Park colleges were pretty much in charge of the programs they extended to campus locations and the campuses functioned primarily as silent partners. Instructors for courses needed to be approved by the relevant University Park faculty, and governance was not really shared in any meaningful sense of the word. This began to change rather substantially, beginning in the mid-1990s, and today it is recognized that the chancellors of the campuses play a substantive role in the selection of faculty and the administration of extended programs. It does not follow that the relevant University Park faculty are the new silent partners in the arrangement, but it does mean that the University Park faculty members no longer call the shots unilaterally. A new rhetoric has grown up around this interface that includes terms like “disciplinary communities” and “consultation.” Things work best when lines of communication are open and all the parties make genuine efforts to pull together and to debate the issues on their merits.
The Interface Between the College and PDE
We are heavily engaged with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) at the moment regarding a review of our response to the many regulatory changes they made in the requirements for teacher and administrator certification. Here lies another instructive instance of shared governance. A naïve view would hold that PDE sets the requirements and that we are obligated to do as we are told in order to have programs that are approved by PDE. A more sophisticated view recognizes that PDE has an obligation to ground its regulations in the findings of research. A place like the Penn State College of Education is actively involved in the conduct of relevant research, and PDE needs to be attentive to the research activities of the College (as well as other sources of research-based insights), thus setting the stage for two-way avenues of communication. A research-oriented place like the Penn State College of Education also has an obligation to operate professional preparation programs that are at the cutting edge of the field. This responsibility leads logically to occasional departures from prevailing practice, and it follows that PDE needs to provide sufficient flexibility in its regulations to facilitate meaningful exploration of new practices. Yes, we need to be held accountable for our programs, but things work best when we are working in partnership with our colleagues at PDE and where we mutually recognize the shared nature of the underlying governance structure.
Some Concluding Thoughts
All three of these instances of shared governance have the potential to give rise to considerable controversy and consternation. They frequently involve searches for compromise, but it is not a matter of simply splitting the difference and meeting in the middle. Rather, the key is to find the features of a principled compromise where the long-term best interests of the whole as well as the parts are well served. I sense the demands on us to reach these principled compromises are intensifying, partly as a byproduct of tightening budgets. Let us commit ourselves to keeping communications open and to reaching sensible results. The new academic year beckons with many worthy challenges, and I look forward to exploring and resolving them with you.
David H. Monk