02/21/2013 05:17 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Shared Governance and Student Success

I don't mean to explain the intricacies of shared governance at colleges and universities. Let me simply set forth the following idea: if student success matters, shared governance matters.

By student success I mean the important focus institutions of higher learning now place on the persistence and graduation of their students. We know that students cannot succeed if they do not take responsibility for their education. But we know as well that colleges and universities can take steps to support the success of their students and make it more likely.

When I arrived as president of Austin Peay State University in August 2007, I knew that one of the university's most pressing needs was to increase the persistence and graduation rates of its students. It served -- and serves -- student populations with special challenges in the area of persistence. For example, more than forty percent of APSU's students are 25 years and older at the time they arrive on our campus. More than fifty percent are eligible for the Pell award. Adult and low-income students have traditionally fared poorer than other students in persistence and graduation from institutions of higher learning. Both we, and they, face significant challenges in trying to see that demography is not destiny for these students.

Some of the work supporting student success happens outside the classroom. Our Student Life division, for example, has organized a variety of support centers for different groups of students, including military students and nontraditional students. Moreover, it conducts orientation sessions for new students, designed to help make them successful as they begin their academic careers with us.

But some of the most important work a university can accomplish to help its students succeed runs directly through the faculty. For example, redesigning courses to improve student learning and student success is an activity in which faculty must be intimately involved. Similarly, although our academic support center attempts to contact and provide help for students whose class attendance or early work in a course puts them at risk of failing the course, our faculty are key figures in identifying these students.

In short, at Austin Peay State University, where we are working overtime to help more of our students persist and graduate, faculty are full partners in the work. We would not have seen some of the successes we have if they weren't full partners. Which brings us back to the question of shared governance. We would not be successful in helping our students succeed if faculty weren't partners in this work. And faculty would not be partners in the work of student success, if they weren't partners in the work of the university generally. If you want people to be partners, you have to treat them like partners. And so, at Austin Peay, we are working hard to make sure that our faculty are full partners in the university's life and work. The provost and I work especially closely with the faculty senate, which serves as an important liaison between the administration and faculty as we collectively make decisions about the university.

From time to time I hear from alumni something to the effect that a president's job is to keep the faculty in line. I try to respond patiently to what I think of as a fundamentally mistaken point of view. The faculty are not like errant children, always threatening to upset the fragile furniture of the academic house. They are joint owners of the house and are responsible for the most important work of the university -- the work of teaching our students. Without their work and participation, nothing important can be done at a university. I'm convinced that university presidents and provosts can do very little of any real substance without the partnership of faculty. Everything else administrators can do is essentially window dressing compared to what can be done in concert with faculty. Especially in the area of student success, faculty will be at the forefront of future progress in the area. Administrators who treat faculty as anything but full partners in the work of the university are doomed to see their institutions fall behind. What else would we expect?