Augustana President Bahls on Shared Governance

“We need to build a better value proposition in higher education,” advised Steve Bahls, president of Augustana College (Illinois). “And if faculty, administrators, and trustees are operating in silos and not talking with each other, then we’re not building colleges and universities that are sustainable.”

In his work with the Association of Governing Boards to publish his book, Shared Governance in Times of Change: A Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges, Bahls found there was general agreement within the higher education industry in the following areas:

—We are in a period of transformational change.

—We need to make better-informed decisions that are not so haphazard.

—We need to implement decisions faster.

—We need to be more outcomes-oriented.

—We need to make working at or serving a university more satisfying.

Bahls argued that a shared governance system of decision making better equips colleges and universities for creating a marketplace of ideas among board members, faculty members, and administrators—yet it depends on which view of shared governance they adopt.

Traditionally people have thought of shared governance among faculty, trustees, and administrators in one of three ways: (1) as people having an equal right to make decisions as partners reaching consensus, (2) as an obligation to consult with faculty and “run things past them” because they only have a right to be heard, and (3) as an established set of rules of engagement and boundaries that gives faculty control of academic issues, trustees control of business issues, and administrators control of strategic planning.

Instead, Bahls advocated for a fourth view of shared governance as open communication that aligns priorities and creates a culture of shared responsibility. He pointed out that if you hold the view of equal rights to governance, then you arrive only at the least common denominator. If you hold the view of obligation to consult, then you can end up with votes of no confidence if you disregard what others advise. And if you hold the view of rigid rules of engagement, then it does not align everyone in what the value proposition is.

But if you hold the view of shared responsibility, then you can stay focused on framing decisions around what the student learning outcomes are. Such shared governance requires lots of information sharing and three-way transparency, but, Bahls said, “it’s the holy grail as a tool to advance common outcomes.”