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The GW Hatchet

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Crime log: Subject barred after shoplifting at bookstore
By Max Porter, Contributing News Editor • February 26, 2024

Op-ed: One step forward, two steps back for shared governance at GW

Deciding to arm GWPD without faculty input calls into question the purpose of shared governance.

Shaista E. Khilji is a professor of human and organizational learning and international affairs. She served as the faculty co-chair of the GW Shared Governance Task Force. Arthur J. Wilson is an associate professor of finance. He was a member of the GW Shared Governance Task Force and is currently a faculty senator.

Shared governance provides checks and balances between faculty, administration and trustees to limit the concentration of power and develop campus-wide trust — a trust that trustees broke when they decided to arm GW Police Department officers without faculty input.

This was only a year after the faculty, trustees and administration agreed to a set of Shared Governance Principles, whose approval was momentous after some tough years at GW. The faculty had hoped this was the beginning of a collaborative partnership. Instead, the very purpose of shared governance at GW has now been called into question.

When the Board of Trustees called for a joint discussion about the meaning of shared governance in May 2021, the faculty welcomed the announcement as their advocacy for making shared governance work at GW came to fruition.

The Shared Governance Task Force, composed of faculty, trustees and administrators, met regularly from December 2021 to May 2022. This was not an easy task. We had a new University president, and the campus was recovering from an embattled former administration. Despite many heated moments that had the potential to stall discussions, we carried on. We conducted a survey, hosted faculty town halls and ultimately developed the Shared Governance Principles to strengthen “the participation and coordination among the Board, the Administration, and the Faculty and encourage robust and multi-directional communication,” which the faculty, trustees and administration endorsed in spring 2022.

Amid several mechanisms to bring together faculty, trustees and administrators, the Shared Governance Principles document also committed to holding “ourselves accountable for effective evaluation, continuous improvement, and ensuring we stay responsive to our environmental needs.”

Considering that the GW trustees decided to arm some GWPD officers without faculty input, we must ask: What went wrong? Were the Shared Governance Principles too lofty to uphold — or too easy to set aside?

The trustees argue that campus security is their responsibility. They speak in dread of what they would say to parents if an armed individual attacked campus, as occurred at Michigan State University in February or at Virginia Tech in 2007. However, to say that trustees have the final say does not answer the above questions. Shared governance is not about who gets to make the final decision or who is the fiduciary — it is about ensuring open discussions and upholding the shared governance principles the trustees endorsed on their accord only one year ago.

So why are the trustees skeptical of openly discussing with the faculty, even within the formal senate structure? It may be because they don’t understand the academic culture and nonhierarchical nature of faculty governance structures.

In their book, “The Insider’s Guide to Working with Universities,” James Dean and Deborah Clarke argue that most trustees don’t have the experience of a faculty member. When viewed from the world of corporate “efficiency” and top-down hierarchy, the deliberative and collaborative nature of universities can be puzzling. As a result, trustees may see faculty members as merely “employees” and get frustrated with their demands for data and slow decision-making pace.

From a faculty-centric perspective, the trustee view is misplaced and demeaning. Ideally, the administrators — the University president and the provost — could bridge this rift. However, given the proliferation of managerialism, we realize this would require a genuine act of bravery.

A numerical asymmetry between faculty, trustees and administration also contributes to misunderstandings. The trustees are smaller in number and can delegate most discussions with the faculty to their executive committee. The administration is hierarchical; therefore, it may accept trustee decisions even when they disagree with them. On the other hand, the faculty are far greater in numbers and nonhierarchical. The faculty motivations are also far more complex because of their disciplinary and demographic diversity.

Trustees ask: Who speaks for the faculty? GW’s Faculty Governance Plan refers to two central bodies — the Senate and the Faculty Assembly. As a major faculty representative body, the Faculty Senate acts on behalf of the University faculty. The Senate also uses its standing committees, composed of faculty and staff, as broader venues for discussing institutional matters. Hence, no single senator can speak for the faculty.

Faculty outside the senate structure are still members of the faculty assembly. They may come together on an ad-hoc basis because they deeply care about an issue — as they have since the decision to arm GWPD. More than 230 faculty members have called for the pause and reversal of this decision. Therefore, the real test of governance in any University is to engage with this great complexity.

The trustees are probably also weary of the faculty’s demand for data which they may think slows down its decision-making process. However, any change consultant will tell you that data-informed decisions improve operational efficiency and are more likely to create buy-in. The success of town halls organized by the Shared Governance Task Force shows that asking faculty for input generates goodwill. Hence, engaging with and not shielding yourself from the faculty is the key to building trust.

One may hope that trustees and faculty will gradually learn to speak frankly and hear the other side in pursuit of shared governance. The administrators may also be able to help by stepping outside their narrow managerial roles. Perhaps the Shared Governance Principles, with their focus on “robust and multi-directional communication,” will help build a stronger foundation of trust, but we are not there yet. Instead, the trustees’ decision to arm GWPD officers without faculty input — and the administration’s attempts to promptly carry out that decision — indicates we have taken several steps backward.

Despite the aforementioned challenges, we still believe shared governance is the best way forward. Realistically, we also realize there is no promised land here, and we expect GW faculty and the campus community to be tested again. So, what should the faculty do?

We recognize that the corporatization of higher education has been exhaustive. Heavier teaching and workloads, deteriorating pay and conditions, fewer tenure lines and administrative bloat have weighed us down. But it is also precisely why we must become actively involved in faculty governance and push back collectively.

We need to raise our collective voice to make it count. That means looking beyond our publish-or-perish reality and committing a few thankless hours to faculty issues because there is no shared governance without vigorous faculty involvement. And without shared governance, our best will become a distant past. With that, we hope faculty consider volunteering for the Senate’s Physical Facilities and Safety Committee to provide feedback on GW’s safety policies and other upcoming planning efforts.

As long as the faculty are actively involved and advocating for shared governance, it is not a lost cause. Or is it?

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