State of the Profession: Strengthening Faculty-Board Relationships

By Allison Buskirk-Cohen

From 2015 to 2018, I served as a faculty representative to the board of trustees at my institution, a small, teaching-focused university. In some ways, my institution is unusual, as a private university with a unionized faculty operating under a collec­tive bargaining agreement, but we face many of the same challenges as other higher education institutions. During my time as a faculty repre­sentative, I became more interested in shared governance and became involved with the AAUP.

In the past fifty years, the AAUP and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Col­leges (AGB) have adopted similar language in statements on institu­tional governance and faculty-board communication. The AAUP jointly formulated with the AGB and the American Council on Education the 1966 Statement on Govern­ment of Colleges and Universities. In 2014, the AAUP’s Committee on College and University Gover­nance developed a report on best practices in faculty-board commu­nication, which provided updated recommendations and reaffirmed the principles set forth in the 1966 Statement. In 2017, the AGB’s board of directors issued a state­ment on shared governance—which the AAUP’s governance committee commended—emphasizing the role of faculty members, administrators, and board members “in achieving a commonly supported mission.”

The AAUP and AGB statements on shared governance emphasize the need for faculty and board members to develop strong working relationships and maintain effec­tive communication, not always easy tasks. Faculty and board members often arrive at institutions with different backgrounds and experiences. They have different ways of identifying problems and different approaches to addressing them. The rotation of board mem­bers can also make it difficult to establish strong relationships. Board members typically serve limited terms, while faculty members often remain at institutions for decades. Engaging in joint activities, both formal and informal, can build a community of trust and respect. For example, our faculty welcomed a new president by hosting a celebra­tion, the first event to which all faculty and board members were invited. Members of the president’s cabinet were included as well, as a show of good faith to the admin­istration. Although symbolic, this event offered opportunities to initiate conversations. From it, we identified other meaningful ways for faculty and board members to share expertise and collaborate, enabling us to create a shared history and establish common goals.

Institutions also must create structures that support appropriate faculty-board connections. They should periodically review bylaws, policies, and procedures to ensure that faculty-board interactions are effective. Clearly identifying and agreeing on the roles and responsibil­ities of faculty and board members, particularly when they serve on com­mittees together, can prevent conflicts from arising or help resolve them when they do. Moreover, faculty and board members must agree on how individuals will fulfill their respec­tive roles. For example, how might a faculty representative to the board of trustees communicate with other fac­ulty members about the proceedings of a committee? How might a board representative do the same? Prin­ciples of shared governance provide guidance on how this decision-making should occur.

Finally, faculty and board mem­bers must commit to the ongoing work necessary to maintain their relationship. Continued education on shared governance, for both fac­ulty and board members, is critical to effective communication. Ori­entation of new faculty and board members rarely includes in-depth discussions of shared governance. As turnover occurs, new members of the community must be engaged in these discussions. Our institu­tion invited speakers from both the AAUP and the AGB to talk about shared governance. Without any coordination, their talks over­lapped significantly, driving home a message of unity on the definition and implementation of shared gov­ernance. With faculty-board work, there is an emotional workload to consider as well. Developing trust can be challenging, but faculty and board members must engage with one another in good faith, realizing that building productive relationships takes time. Multiple members of the faculty and board must participate in the process, to both share the load and ensure that different voices are heard.

Building relationships and ensuring effective communication between faculty and board mem­bers take effort but are essential to shared governance. When faculty and board members work well together, the lessons they learn from their differences can help them develop innovative strategies that will move the institution forward.

Allison Buskirk-Cohen is chair of the psychology department at Delaware Valley University and a member of the AAUP’s Com­mittee on College and University Governance.