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Faculty Communication with Governing Boards

This article was written by a member of the Association’s Committee on College and University Governance, who, with the committee’s encouragement, prepared it for inclusion in this issue of Academe.
By Hans-Joerg Tiede

College and university governance works best when every constituency within the institution has a clear understanding of its role with respect to the other constituencies. It works best when communication among the governing board, the administration, and the faculty (not to mention the staff and students) is regular, open, and honest. Too often the president serves as the sole conduit for the governing board and the faculty to communicate with each other. While this practice may be efficient, it rarely enhances understanding between governing boards and faculties.

Sidebar: Click here to read The Development of an AAUP Position on Faculty-Board Communication

Whether through committee work, senate activities, or collective bargaining, faculty members and administrative officers are ordinarily engaged in governance activities through both formal meetings and informal discussions and encounters. By contrast, communication between faculty and board members, when it occurs at all, tends to be tightly controlled and very formal. Direct communication between the faculty and the governing board is typically ritualized, infrequent, and limited to specific agenda items.

This comparatively stilted and restricted communication between faculty members and governing boards has been exacerbated in recent years. At the same time, governing boards, encouraged to assume approaches to decision making that are based on corporate models of top-down management, are becoming involved in areas in which the faculty should have primary responsibility. Financial stresses faced by colleges and universities have heightened concerns about the sources of revenues, budgetary priorities, and management of institutions by governing board members who have always been heavily drawn from the business community. However, within the general corporatization of higher education, top-down management styles are becoming more prevalent. As a result, direct communication between the faculty and the board is sometimes actively discouraged. A publication by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni on the role of governing boards in program prioritization asserts that “to the degree that the board has permitted—even encouraged—ex parte communication with faculty, the role and success of the president is jeopardized.”

A disturbing lack of consultation in areas of primary faculty responsibility has occurred in a large number of program closures that have taken place in recent years. A recently published draft report from Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure, The Role of the Faculty in Conditions of Financial Exigency, reinforces the need for faculty participation in decision making and close communication between the faculty and the governing board when closing academic programs and terminating tenured faculty appointments.


A report on faculty-board communication issued by the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges (AGB) in 2009, Faculty, Governing Boards, and Institutional Governance, recommends that, in order to “enhance mutual understanding and respect,” institutions should provide “opportunities for faculty and trustees to interact in meaningful ways, in formal as well as informal settings” and through “faculty membership on board committees or participation in committee meetings.” The report states that faculty members make presentations to the board at 87 percent of 417 institutions surveyed. About onefourth (27 percent) of the institutions include faculty members on the governing board, and the head of the faculty senate serves as a member of the board at 14 percent. More than half of the respondents (56 percent) reported that their institutions had faculty membership on board committees. The report also states that faculty members at independent colleges and universities were almost twice as likely to serve on board committees (61 percent) as those at public institutions (32 percent).

Because governing boards tend to work in committees, it is centrally important that every standing committee of the governing board, including its executive committee, have a faculty representative. In addition, faculty representatives should attend the business meetings of the full governing board. As the AGB report notes, in some cases these faculty representatives are members, presumably with voting privileges, of the standing committees. The case for voting faculty representation is strongest on honorary degree committees, academic affairs committees, or other committees of the governing board that deal with areas that are primary responsibilities of the faculty. Giving faculty members a vote on such committees recognizes the expertise that they bring to these areas. Faculty representation on committees is not the same as faculty representation on boards, however; committees make recommendations to the full board but are not responsible for final action.

If voting membership on committees is not the arrangement chosen, faculty representatives should be given an opportunity to participate in committee discussions. As a first step, the faculty member should be given a title such as faculty representative rather than one indicating a passive role, such as faculty visitor or faculty observer. While perhaps mostly symbolic, the naming of the position can help shape the faculty representative’s role at committee and full board meetings.

Consistent with the recommendations of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance in its statement Confidentiality and Faculty Representation in Academic Governance, representatives to the governing board and its committees should regularly report to the faculty on the activities of the board and should seek out the views of the faculty members they represent. As the committee noted, “the ability of faculty representatives to convey the views of their constituents should lend more authority to their statements.”

The AAUP’s Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities recommends that faculty representatives on institutional governance bodies be “selected by the faculty according to procedures determined by the faculty.” A faculty representative selected by the faculty can claim more legitimacy than an administrative appointee. As the investigating committee for the AAUP’s 2013 University of Virginia report noted regarding presidential appointments of faculty representatives to the governing board, “nomination by the senate of candidates for appointment to the board’s committees would conduce toward greater confidence in faculty representation without sacrificing competence.”

The 2009 AGB report recommends improving faculty and trustee orientation to better educate each group about the other. Having new faculty representatives to the governing board attend orientations for new trustees gives those faculty members a basic overview of the functions of the board and also allows for their participation in the orientation discussions. Additionally, representatives of faculty governance bodies can explain their activities to new trustees who may be unfamiliar with policies on matters such as promotion and tenure—especially if they come from backgrounds other than higher education.

The question of faculty membership on the governing board—a question over which the AAUP’s governance committee was divided in its first report in 1920 (see sidebar)—is not that easily resolved. As the article in this issue by Ronald G. Ehrenberg, Richard W. Patterson, and Andrew V. Key makes clear, a potential conflict seems to inhere in the roles of board member and faculty member. However, even the AGB, which explicitly recommends against faculty membership on governing boards, notes that if such membership is current practice, it should be continued.

Faculty representation on an institution’s governing board should not be a substitute for regular, substantive communication between the faculty and the board. Unmediated communication between the faculty and the governing board can best be accomplished through the establishment of a liaison or conference committee that consists only of faculty members and trustees and that meets for the purpose of discussing items that are brought to the attention of the committee by trustees or faculty members. The role of a conference committee in the governance structure of the institution should be clearly defined. In particular, it is important to avoid overlapping jurisdiction of the conference committee with any of the standing committees of the governing board, the administration, or the faculty.

In addition to a standing liaison committee, other ad hoc committees are sometimes needed to address specific issues of mutual concern. The Statement on Government identifies an issue of highest importance: the special joint responsibility that the faculty and governing board have for the selection of the president. It notes that “the selection of a chief administrative officer should follow upon a cooperative search by the governing board and the faculty, taking into consideration the opinions of others who are appropriately interested.”

Faculty-board communication is a central component of effective shared governance. In its absence, as recent events at a number of institutions have shown, misunderstanding among members of each group about the role of the other may easily occur and decisions might be made that can lead to significant governance failures. Shared governance works only if all constituencies are committed to it.


Hans-Joerg Tiede is professor of computer science at Illinois Wesleyan University and a member of the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Governance. His e-mail address is



The Development of an AAUP Position on Faculty-Board Communication

In view of recent breakdowns in board governance—breakdowns that might have been avoided had better practices been in place—now is a good time to recall the AAUP’s previous recommendations on faculty-board communication.

In 1915, responding to actions against faculty at the University of Utah, the newly founded AAUP conducted its first investigation into violations of academic freedom and tenure. The report of the investigating committee noted that, in response to the events, a faculty committee appointed to devise a “Plan of Administration” proposed the establishment of an “Administrative Council of the University of Utah.” This proposed council, effectively a mixed faculty-administration senate, was to consist of the president, deans, and faculty members. The council would serve as “the regular medium of communication with the Regents.” Moreover, the proposal stated, “The Faculty may at any time communicate with the Regents by conference, resolution, special committee, or otherwise.” The investigating committee commended the proposal in its report, stating that it provided “practicable means for the correction of two of the most serious imperfections in the constitution of most American colleges and universities, namely: the lack of conference, and frequently of a good understanding, between the two legislative bodies of such institutions, the Faculty and the Board of Trustees; and the anomalous position of the college president, as the only representative before the board of trustees, of the views and wishes of a faculty which does not select him as its representative, and to which he is in no way responsible.”

In 1920, Committee T on the Place and Function of Faculties in University Government and Administration (now the Committee on College and University Governance) issued a report that included several recommendations on the conduct of shared governance, among them faculty representation at governing board meetings. “This end,” the report stated, “may be accomplished in several ways: members may be elected by the faculty to membership on the board of trustees for limited terms of office and without vote (the Cornell plan); or the faculty committee on university policy may be elected by the faculty from its own members to be present and advise with the board as a whole, or with the regularly appointed committee of the board on university policy (the plan in vogue at Princeton, Stanford, Wisconsin, etc.).” A majority on Committee T endorsed the latter, calling it the “conference committee” model, primarily because the majority opposed nonvoting membership but also because “faculty representatives are really in a stronger position to give information and advice if they are not members of the board.” Ultimately, the committee urged that both models be tried out, noting that “the conference committee plan seems to be best suited for state institutions, and faculty representation on the Governing Board for privately endowed institutions.”

In 1938, Committee T issued a report with further recommendations on the conduct of shared governance. On the subject of faculty-board communication, it stated that

consultation must be accomplished through a conference committee authorized to represent the faculty, or through joint committees of faculty and trustees set up to confer on specific problems or created ad hoc to confer on some special occasion. Provisions of these sorts are now sufficiently common in university government so that they are in no sense radical or merely experimental departures from the traditional division of functions. This traditional division, which assigns financial control to the trustees and educational policy to the faculty, is sound and should be protected in the interest of the faculty’s independence in educational matters. . . . In order that the faculty may be genuinely represented in such conference committees, it must necessarily participate in the selection of its conferees.

The Association subsequently issued the Statement on Government of Colleges and Universities, jointly formulated with the American Council on Education and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, which addresses the need for adequate communication: “The variety and complexity of the tasks performed by institutions of higher education produce an inescapable interdependence among governing board, administration, faculty, students, and others. The relationship calls for adequate communication among these components, and full opportunity for appropriate joint planning and effort.” It further delineates the means of communication between these entities: “The means of communication among the faculty, administration, and governing board now in use include: (1) circulation of memoranda and reports by board committees, the administration, and faculty committees; (2) joint ad hoc committees; (3) standing liaison committees; (4) membership of faculty members on administrative bodies; and (5) membership of faculty members on governing boards.”

The statements on shared governance issued by the AAUP before 1966 identify faculty-board communication as an issue of separate concern, while the Statement on Government lists the means of communication among all three components of the university governance structure together and does not recommend a specific mode for facultyboard communication.

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