Lessons from Public Flagship Universities
Often, when discussing shared governance, we talk as if everyone is part of the system—either administrator or faculty. It is also assumed that when change does happen, it occurs through formal channels. Last year, Ithaka S+R conducted a landscape review of technology-enhanced education in ten public flagship universities. The goal of our study was to understand the online learning strategies in these institutions and to learn more about perspectives on this topic among faculty and administrators. In our multiple-day visits to ten public flagship universities, we soon realized that the situation is more complicated than the conventional wisdom suggests.
Tenure track faculty told us that it is their research that is highly valued by their universities. Many of them are dedicated and good teachers, but their first priority is doing research, for that is how they are valued and rewarded. A large portion of undergraduate courses are taught by professional teachers, who are not on the tenure track. The public flagships have recognized the value of hiring disciplinary experts on contract, often multiple-year contracts, rather than relying on adjuncts, because the professional teachers have a loyalty to the institution, and though they are more expensive than adjuncts, they do not command the same salaries as the tenure track faculty. In many cases, we found that these professional teachers were the individuals responsible for developing more customized technology-enhanced courses for undergraduate courses. They had time to do it, and their sole responsibility was teaching. While these teachers often commanded a great deal of respect among their colleagues in their departments, it was not typically the case that they had any role in the governance system of the university. Their voices are not heard in the faculty senate debates about online learning.
Another finding from our study is that administrators as a group were more interested in and positive about online learning than the faculty as a group. Of course there were individual exceptions. Administrators are facing similar challenges in the public flagship institutions: the need to broaden access to public higher education, the push to improve learning outcomes for students and improve their completion rates, the pressure to reduce tuition costs, and the expectations of their state legislatures that technology will provide at least partial solutions. On nearly all of the campuses, online learning is seen as one way of addressing these problems. Many presidents and provosts told us that it was simply too difficult to secure agreement from the faculty governance structures to proceed in a timely and uniform way. Most administrators appointed a member of the faculty to work from the president’s or provost’s office to promote online learning experimentation. With small grants to individual faculty, they incentivize those who want to try something new. Several presidents also established faculty committees to make recommendations for the university’s online learning strategy, but these committees take a long time to work through their deliberations. So the administrators set up separate units to make progress with the coalition of the willing. The faculty who head offices or programs of online learning are most often not in a line position. Their power of persuasion is what they rely on.
These are but two examples of how universities could benefit from a reconceptualization of shared governance. Current governance structures neither represent the stakeholders nor keep up with the evolving needs of the 21st Century university.