03/27/2013 07:26 pm ET Updated May 27, 2013

The Evolution of Faculty Governance

Historically, three groups share principal responsibility in collegiate governance. Boards of trustees are charged with financial stewardship, administrative oversight, and creating a climate in which all parties, especially the president, can succeed. Presidents and their senior staffs manage the enterprise. The faculty plays a critical role in program development and review.

Shared governance also encourages a level of tension among the three groups. It is understood by all parties that the board of trustees is the court of last resort. Presidents often intercede as facilitators and interpreters of decisions and the best of them seek ways to link strategy to need. The faculty governs the core of the educational enterprise, and in this role, are the keepers of the flame protecting quality, tradition and process. Behind the college gates, the system works well enough.

To the extent that tension surfaces, the buzzwords typically associated with this tension between or among governing groups are trust, transparency, and open communication. These are good words and have real meaning. Boards that are heavily politicized, imbalanced, uninformed, or capricious exacerbate tension. Presidents who run afoul of process in laying out strategy, failing to consult, or neglecting to attach a timeline to an overarching institutional agenda contribute to the problem.

Yet in many respects faculties are their own worst enemies. There is a timeworn adage about department members of a distinguished university faculty who returned to the department to exclaim excitedly that while no action had been taken on the motion these faculty members were very pleased because they were certain they had won the debate. The example illustrates the nature of the problem. It is no longer sufficient for faculty to fall back on communication and process as their principal response to change.

As I have said repeatedly in recent writing, American higher education is at a seminal moment in its history. The failure of its financing model, confusing and outmoded pricing structure, consumer trends, media attention, and the tsunami of technology changes sweeping over it have altered and quickened higher education's likely evolutionary path.

The good news is that intersection of forces producing sweeping change represents a moment of unparalleled opportunity for faculty. No longer can faculty leadership fall back upon calls for better communication and other process arguments as the principal tools to protect their role in governing the educational program. Instead, faculty must -- at a minimum -- restate their role and purpose in governance.

The first step is to define the turf. The weakest faculties focus on everything. The best faculties concentrate on the reason for their role at the table -- the education program. If shared governance is to continue to work well, the faculty must define their area of involvement and expertise with great care. In doing so, they may well narrow the range of comment and concern and therefore become a more mature and responsible voice at the governance table. In the end, the faculty must be the principal architects in shaping the program, hiring and retaining their colleagues, and assessing how institutional strategic vision shapes and defines a well-differentiated academic program.

The second step is to learn more about the world beyond the college gates. For faculty to be credible in governance, they must understand more about the impact of global forces on the university. Rather than offering a knee-jerk response to obfuscate and delay, progressive faculties should see tremendous opportunity and lead an informed discussion about the education program, the path it must take, and the resources that they will need to support the institution in getting there. It is no longer enough to win the debate. Responsible faculties must start the conversation.

Finally, American higher education must create faculties that seek new natural allies in developing and strengthening the education program. Romantic images of medieval professors surrounded by students are accurate but more relevant to another time and era. Modern faculty must educate trustees, assist presidents in defining and interpreting an institutional strategic plan, and reward excellence among them more highly than time served. While newly minted professors emerging from sub-specialties within doctoral research programs offer great value, most teaching faculties should know more to govern well.

These faculties have a role best supported through a deep understanding of admissions, diversity programming, town gown cooperative partnerships, and deeper industry relationships. They must seek resources that move faculty discussions beyond salary and tenure to include more meaningful conversation about how to craft a climate for their success. They must recognize that boards and the administration, working with them, have important knowledge and expertise to share with faculty. By linking the future of faculty to an institutional strategic vision, the faculty can best reemerge as credible players in a new educational reality.

The boat has sailed. If boards of trustees are the court of last resort and consumer preferences and the media can create extraordinary pressure on higher education institutional direction, it is essential that faculty get in the game. It no longer matters who wins the debate. What's more important is that the faculty is at the table, understands what challenges and opportunities they face globally, and initiates the conversation about the education program. In the end, it's all about how to build and sustain a quality education. And that's where the faculty has the expertise, commitment and vision.