Your Role in Shared Governance

July 25, 2022
  • AACRAO Leadership and Governance
  • Board of Directors
  • Professional Development and Contributions to the Field
One person raising their hand in a crowd at a conference.

By Philip Hunt, Sr. University Registrar at North Dakota State University, AACRAO VP of Leadership & Management Development

These are turbulent times. In the last two years, we’ve experienced a global pandemic, an insurrection in our nation’s capital, televised police brutality, falling 401k investments, and now a war in Ukraine. So much happening worldwide has impacted our respective campuses and the entire higher education community. How often have we heard that the landscape of higher education is changing? The fact is, it’s changing faster than most would have thought. We knew the “enrollment cliff” was coming, we didn’t see COVID coming, and we are still trying to manage the constant barrage of criticism from the outside on the value of higher education and the insistent encroachment of state legislatures on academic freedom and institutional autonomy. What is an enrollment professional to do in this environment? How do we best navigate this volatile landscape?

The advice I am going to give is that of a Registrar, though I truly believe this advice is suitable for all enrollment professionals to consider and reflect upon. First, we must recognize that our challenges are ripe with new opportunities. As registrar professionals, we practice our craft while straddling the lines of shared governance. I say this because few positions on campus have to manage relationships with and support the various needs of executive administrators, faculty, students, staff, alumni, parents, accrediting agencies, and federal and state officials. And we have to do it consistently at a high level. One of the lessons from COVID that I recognized is that it brought the important work of registrar professionals to the forefront. Colleges and universities relied on us to help navigate the crisis we were in, and if they didn’t know what we did before, they certainly do now. It is up to us to continue to do what we do well, control what we can control, and leverage the relationships we’ve established through the shared governance structure on our campuses.

Understanding Shared Governance

To do what I am recommending, we must first understand the meaning and purpose of shared governance in higher education. In their Statement of Shared Governance, the Association of Governing Boards (AGB) defines shared governance as “a fundamental principle of inclusion in key areas of institutional responsibility and decision making.” Even the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) recognizes that the governance of higher education institutions is “a responsibility shared by administrators, faculty, and trustees.” The primary issue is that most institutional stakeholders on our campuses and boards lack a fundamental understanding of shared governance or even an appreciation for it. It is this fundamental misunderstanding of shared governance and the roles of the various stakeholders involved that create obstacles for our institutions to have future success.

We often hear the topic of shared governance come up when reading higher education news articles in the Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed when there is a conflict between faculty and administrators or faculty and legislators, along with some perceived impact of decisions on academic freedom. This is where you grab a chair and sit down because I’m here to tell you that the concept of shared governance and academic freedom doesn’t belong solely to faculty. As enrollment professionals, we don’t always use our voice enough in the shared governance process on our respective campuses because most of us think this is a realm solely reserved for faculty and trustees. Or, when we assert ourselves, some faculty assert that we infringe on their academic freedom. Unfortunately, some administrators (executive and mid-level) run and hide instead of leaning in to understand the root cause of faculty dissension.

Don’t misread me here, as I strongly support academic freedom and shared governance. However, in my twenty-two years in higher education, I've learned that there is a misunderstanding of the parameters of academic freedom, and each campus may have its definition of shared governance. Recently, I attended a conference where registrar professionals shared stories, insights, and challenges on their respective campuses. While at dinner, one registrar mentioned how they were trying to make improvements to their institution’s curriculum process only to be told “faculty own the curriculum” by their Provost. You can imagine my dismay as a cold chill ran up my back. I knew that my experienced and knowledgeable registrar colleague had an arduous but necessary challenge ahead of them.

Find Your Voice

My point here is that as enrollment professionals, we need to continue to educate and empower our stakeholders by firmly understanding our role in shared governance and, thus, our influence to help move our institutions where they want to go in a manner that complies with internal and external policy and/or regulatory standards. We must use our voices and share our perspectives to help inform decisions and effectuate positive change for our students.

To find your voice, I recommend the following action steps:

  • Review your institution’s shared governance policies.
  • Review your institution’s governing board policies on shared governance.
  • Become familiar with your accreditor’s standards on shared governance as that is the standard your institution must hold to for accreditation purposes.
  • Speak to your campus stakeholders about their experience with the shared governance process at your institution.
  • Review the bylaws and charters of the various governance groups at your institution to understand the role each group plays in the governance structure.
  • Establish relationships with the respective chairs of your governance groups to confirm your understanding of their charge and determine how you may be able to assist them in meeting that charge.
  • Understand the process of how policies are created and implemented on your campus.
  • Volunteer to serve in a formal capacity on your institution’s staff senate.