• November 27, 2014

AAUP Urges Direct Talks Between Colleges' Boards and Faculties

Citing several instances of what it regards as breakdowns in shared governance, the American Association of University Professors is calling for colleges' governing boards to take steps to hear directly from faculty members, without letting administrators filter such talks.

In a draft statement issued on Thursday, the AAUP calls for colleges to establish committees consisting solely of trustees and faculty members to meet regularly to discuss subjects of interest to both sides. The association also calls for faculty representatives to attend the business meetings of governing boards and have a seat on every standing committee of such boards, including the executive committee.

Faculty representatives on board committees should be allowed to participate fully in committee discussions, even where they are denied voting privileges, the AAUP statement says. Those on governing boards, it says, should go through the same orientation process as other board members, and the ranks of faculty representatives on governing boards and their committees should include faculty members who are employed on a contingent basis, rather than just those who are tenured or on the tenure track.

The statement, approved by the association's committee on college and university governance, argues that "effective faculty-board communication is a critical component of shared governance," and its absence "can result in serious misunderstanding between campus constituents and in significant governance failures leading to flawed decision making."

"Communication between faculties and governing boards has worsened on many campuses in recent years," the statement says, with critics of shared governance encouraging boards "to adopt top-down decision-making strategies and to intrude into decision-making areas in which the faculty traditionally has exercised primary responsibility."

Avoiding a Governance Crisis

As a prime example of a shared-governance crisis stemming from a breakdown in communication between a board and a faculty, the statement cites last year's turmoil at the University of Virginia, where the president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was ousted by the Board of Visitors, only to be rehired after two weeks of public outcry. An AAUP report issued in March faulted the university's board for removing Ms. Sullivan without faculty consultation, in addition to other errors in judgment.

The Virginia dust-up is one of a few recent governance controversies mentioned in the statement. It also cites the AAUP's recent reports accusing National Louis University, a private nonprofit institution with campuses in Florida, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and Southern University at Baton Rouge, a public institution, of failing to adequately consult their faculties in laying off faculty members. Another recent AAUP report cited in the statement, dealing broadly with college declarations of financial exigency, argues that the restriction of faculty-board communication has reduced the capacity of colleges and universities to fulfill their educational missions.

Hans-Joerg Tiede, a professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University who headed the AAUP subcommittee that prepared the statement, said on Wednesday that "there is an expectation at institutions that communication will somehow be conducted through the administration, and there will not be any unmediated communication between the faculty and the board."

He said the faculty-trustee committees called for in the report would be focused solely on facilitating such communication, without making any decisions, and other documents previously issued by the AAUP make clear that boards should exercise self-restraint and not use such committees to try to micromanage colleges' academic affairs. As a model for how such committees should operate, he pointed to the Regents-Faculty Conference Committee established by St. Olaf College, in Minnesota, which does not set policy but makes recommendations to the college's faculty and board.

Ada Meloy, general counsel at the American Council on Education, said she believes such board-faculty committees might "serve to benefit the institution" as long as boards and faculty members also hear the perspective of administrators in making decisions.

Richard D. Legon, president of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, said in an e-mail that while his organization and the AAUP "have not always agreed on board and faculty relations, we commend the AAUP for focusing on the issue of faculty and board awareness of each other's roles. This can only help ensure that shared governance works as institutions deal with the critical issues facing higher education."

The AAUP statement is subject to revision in response to comment from the association's members or the public. Comments should be sent to the group's Washington office by July 31.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.