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Shared Governance Need Not Be a Charade

(Originally posted March 13, 2011 on the Chronicle of Higher Education Web site)

To the Editor:

I strongly disagree with the central premise of John Lachs's commentary "Shared Governance Is a Myth" (The Chronicle, February 6). Mr. Lachs's views are overly cynical, and his arguments overlook the important role of shared governance—particularly, perhaps, at an institution the size of mine. Salisbury University, with approximately 8,500 students, is a community and a place where individual and collective voices do matter.

Importantly, faculty senates, staff senates, and student-government associations provide the means through which consensus building can take place. A shared-governance body represents a collective voice, without which a cacophony of loud, individual voices can emerge predominant.

While it is true that the role of faculty, staff, and student senates and committees is often largely advisory, the recommendations of these governance bodies carry great weight. During my 15 years as a university president, I've learned that the best decisions are made only after listening carefully and seeking input from representative constituent groups. Administrators are charged with the day-to-day management of our institutions. Further, we ultimately are the ones who are accountable and bear the responsibility for fiscal management and other decisions. However, the best strategic directions and ideas for mapping the future course of a college or university emerge from broad consultation and consensus building.

Do I, as president, sometimes wring my hands upon receiving a recommendation that seems impractical or impossibly idealistic? Sure. Are governance processes and committees often slow and sometimes convoluted? Without a doubt. But to term the work of governance groups a "charade" misses the point. As the author himself suggests, when governing boards and university CEO's lose touch with the faculty (and, I would add, staff members and students), our institutions can, and often do, go down the wrong path. Shared governance, however flawed, is one mechanism that helps assure that administrators are making decisions consistent with an institution's character, future aspirations, and mission.

I can hear the cynics now: "Of course a president is going to say that she cares about shared governance, but is this only lip service?" Let's face it: At the end of the day, I know that members of my administration and I had better listen. Why would we not want to work together as harmoniously as possible? Most days I enjoy the camaraderie, the debates, even the challenges and disagreements. Sound a bit naïve? Sometimes I even forget to take off my faculty hat to don that of the Dreaded University Administrator.

Janet Dudley-Eshbach
Salisbury University
Salisbury, Md.

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