Shared Governance, David Milstone, Student Affairs

“I Believe in Shared Governance” | David Milstone, Former Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, 2017

In many business organizations, decisions are made by the CEO, President, or a department head.  Higher Education is different in that there are several different types of constituencies here – each with a different expertise.  Administrators generally know the pertinent laws and how to manage people, finances, and crises.  Faculty members are experts in their fields of study and have great knowledge about curriculum design and the education of students.  Students, of course, are the center of this model, as all actions ideally lead to their success. 

In my travels, I have worked at Universities that used a top-down approach and others that use more of a shared-governance model – I believe in the shared-governance model.  

Shared-governance does not mean that all decisions are made by a combination of administration, faculty, staff, and students.  There are some decisions that belong in the purview of administration, some in the purview of faculty, and at least one in the purview of student-leadership (determining the best use of the Student Fee).  Of course, students also make decisions pertinent to their own situations (health insurance, paying for college, and where to live and what meal plan to take, as examples).

Conversely, shared-governance does mean that before decisions are made, there is opportunity made available to others for input.  As a result, decisions are often better thought-out, researched, and usually found to be most palatable since many people were allowed to have their voices heard in the matters.  In this model, various governance groups work together by committee or task force to brainstorm ideas and search for the best answers.  Even when the decision rests with one group, the final decision at which they arrive will likely be more welcomed when many voices are heard in the process of developing the final decisions.

Why is a shared-governance model so hard to develop?  Shared governance models are considered to be “best-practice” across higher education, but like any management structure where there are dominant groups, it takes a willingness of the group in power to be willing to ask for and consider input from other groups.  In my view, shared-leadership takes strong and mature leadership.  Mature leadership knows that being asked for input does not mean that all decisions will be theirs to make, just as mature leaders know that offering opportunities for input does not obligate them to accept that input.  There is an old adage “Don’t ask a question for which you do not want the answer.”  When a decision is clear to those who need to make it, it makes little sense to solicit input, as the solicited advice will likely be ignored.

Much of campus life involves decisions that benefit greatly from a shared-leadership way of thinking.  We have come a long way in the past decade at UMass Dartmouth with respect to valuing student voices as well as faculty voices – this shows tremendous opportunities for the future success of this wonderful institution.

When you have the opportunity to share your voice, I hope you will do so – I believe that shared-governance will be one of the foundations that will bring our campus, in the words of Jim Collins, “from good to great.”