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What Can We Learn from University of Virginia?

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For those who follow higher education in America, it seems at times that over the last month all eyes have been on the University of Virginia and the controversy regarding the resignation of their president. Even this week, on July 16, the lead item on Inside Higher Ed featured the UVA story and discussed the broader topic of faculty voice. For those who don't follow college and university life that closely, there are still lessons to be learned.

Higher Education is a Mixed Metaphor

Are colleges and universities a business, a non-profit, an educational enterprise, or a public trust? In some ways, they are all of the above. That is what makes governing, leading, and running an educational institution so difficult. Added to this complexity are the many if not dozens of stakeholder groups associated with a college and university. The perspectives of trustees, faculty, staff, students, administrators, parents, etc. can be so markedly different. This mix of organizational metaphors and varied stakeholders means there will be difficulties. What can we learn from UVA? When we neglect the need to be collaborative and communicative with the wide variety of stakeholders, something bad is going to happen. In contrast, when we collaborate and communicate thoroughly with the multitude of stakeholder groups, we are more likely to progress farther and faster with less stress and strain.

Welcome to the New Normal

Some may say that the hay days of higher education in America was after World War II and before the Vietnam War. Those were the days when the issues of college and university life seemed simpler. Tuition was relatively affordable, especially with the GI bill. Faculty members worked with the administration and the whole enterprise moved forward. Those days are far in the rear-view mirror. Imagine for a moment that you are a college administrator at a public institution dealing with declining state revenues, flat enrollment, and a host of collective bargaining agreements. What would you do to balance the books? Then your board asks you to take some new, aggressive, and innovative steps to right size things like most other organizations are forced to do these days. The problem is that these new steps will alienate many of your stakeholder groups that you have worked so hard to embrace. Welcome to the new normal of higher education. What is the solution? There is no easy solution but once again collaboration and communication with a strong dose of transparency can go a long ways.

Collaborative Governance is Important and Difficult

Shared governance has a long history in American higher education and continues to play an important role. The concept emphasizes collegiality and has traditionally championed the voice of the faculty in the life of the institution. In more recent years there have been some tensions as to how the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) have viewed shared governance (more faculty-centric) as compared to the views of the Association of Governing Boards (more board-centric). Who is ultimately responsible for the welfare of the institution? In today's environment, most would agree that it is the governing board of trustees. Problems are created, however, when governing boards become increasingly "corporate" in their approach to governance with can become fixated on finances and expediency. At that point, the important and central voice of the faculty can be lost. A better approach is trying to find the middle ground of more effective collaboration.

In a collaborative model, the following features are at the forefront:

-Trust

-Transparency

-Communication

-Accountability

Ideally, collaboration engages greater asset-based thinking and appreciative inquiry resulting in higher levels of trust. Add to this the strengths of transparency and communication and you have an appropriate blend of support and reality. Accountability provides a top-level focus on outcomes. Together, these features can help institutions avoid some of the problems encountered by UVA. In that context, collaboration and communication seemed to have struggled. When collaboration, trust, transparency, and communication run thin, top-level accountability can become severe or disjointed.

All of this is easier to talk about after the fact or in regards to someone else's organization. The greater challenge is strengthening these features in our worlds. We can learn several important lessons from the UVA situation. Hopefully, this will lead to more effective work at our institutions where the new normal is felt everyday.