Why shared governance is such a damned good thing… for administrators

After I stepped down 19 months ago from being the head of the faculty union at USF, I got ribbed by my successor about “turning to the dark side” with an appointment last August as a department chair. “More like the gray side,” I replied. (In my college, chairs are in the faculty union bargaining unit, so I am still a part of the bargaining unit and a member.)1 As I’ve been in that role for a little over a year, it has become much more evident in a personal way why shared governance is a good thing for academic administrators.

  1. You need faculty buy-in for the vast majority of academic things that happen on campus. This is the principled position (the faculty own the curriculum) and the conclusion one would draw from studying loads and loads of education reform at different levels (see “street-level bureaucrat” and “loosely-coupled system”). It is also the position that is required if you want department chairs and college deans to be sane. It doesn’t matter whether you are at a campus with tenure or not, or what proportion of courses are taught by tenure-track faculty. Unless you are at a for-profit institution with a cookie-cutter curriculum, there are only a limited number of directives you can give a colleague, and in my experience faculty have a pretty good sense of which requests are legitimate from a local perspective (obviously connected to a department’s functioning), which are passed on from above (e.g., with accounting rules, etc.), and which are a load of bull.
  2. Shared governance is a useful reality check for academic administrators. Every mistake I have seen myself make thus far as a department chair has been because of haste or inadequate consultation.2 Ad-hoc processes are problematic, but there are often pressures to decide things RIGHT NOW in academe, when a round of talking with relevant parties can often provide critical information and alternatives.
  3. I don’t want to do this job forever, and it will probably be one of my current colleagues who will succeed me. That means it’s my obligation to share as much institutional knowledge with colleagues as I can and build a functioning department that can operate just fine without me.
  4. Good managers delegate a large number of tasks to people whose job descriptions include those tasks. Why would I not want to delegate as many weighty decisions as possible to people I like working with, who collectively have decades of education and experience, who have to live with whatever is decided, and who can take a good bit of the psychological burden of decision-making off me?
  5. Shared governance is an effective way to reduce the number of secrets that an academic unit has to keep. If you don’t want a decision to be shared, you and a very limited number of others need to keep control of the information. I don’t mind keeping confidences, but I have to do that anyway with personnel matters, with ambiguous situations that need waiting more than anything else, and with my role as the department’s complaint window. Why do I need to keep more information confidential than is absolutely necessary?

I recognize that I am very lucky as a department chair with my colleagues and with the staff we have. I know very well that if circumstances were different, I might be reluctant to trust important decisions to my colleagues. But the problem there would not be shared governance. If you think that avoiding shared decision-making will eliminate deep problems in work culture or a mismatch between the skills of a unit and what’s needed, then I have a bridge to sell you. More fundamentally, your energy is much better directed at the root of the issue than the various organizational machinations required to avoid shared governance at a public or non-profit college or university.

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  1. Seriously, folks, why are we using a 1977 corny-movie reference as the touchpoint about shifting role perspectives? And what did faculty talk about before 1977 when colleagues became chairs or other academic administrators? []
  2. Note: this is not the same thing as saying I always make mistakes when I act quickly. []