I recently attended a large multi-college district’s “Shared Governance” symposium and found it very interesting to observe how impassioned we are about being heard, about having voice and influence upon our collective destinies. What I didn’t hear, until the panel’s student appointee spoke, was an equivalent passion towards hearing another’s voice, of being influenced by other perspectives and ideals. Leave it to the students to teach us what we should already know.
Effective participatory governance requires a mindset that is very atypical of normal community practice, particularly where a linear hierarchy of command structure already exists as does in our administrative structures and our contractual parameters.
Within this linear command structure when a need is identified that will improve the work being attempted we go to a superior, working up the chain of command. In doing this there is a case to build in which a context is developed for why and how this will promote the improvements sought. We engage in this process primarily because we are familiar with it and it will likely be effective at meeting the need. At the very least we may identify and understand the barriers to why this need may not be met. Conversely, if the chain of command needs something of us they can directly ask, or order us to accomplish it within the parameters of our operating processes (policies, contract, etc.) There exists a codified superior/inferior relationship with defined parameters.
This simple command structure is very straightforward, wherein it’s quite easy to function, even to thrive in. Those who are the most effective at establishing direct rapport tend to fair the best. Decision-making is often one-on-one, or one-on-a-few and is often of a limited scope and scale, although not always. This structure is very effective and commonly used in most private sector and some public sector environments. However, this system has at least one major flaw.
When it is used in an environment where resources are finite or severely limited there will always be winners and losers. There will always be competition that can be very disruptive, or outright destructive, and will always lend itself to remarkable inefficiencies if not rigidly controlled. Hence, by example, a military chain of command is an extreme instance of absolute control to ensure effectiveness.
In contrast to this model, the goal of any legitimate academic enterprise is to explore and question everything and anything, to impart that inquisitiveness, that zeal for knowing as much as possible into our students. Yet some order must exist and exist in a way that addresses the very real societal concerns and consequences in a fair manner that is respectful of the participants’ rights. Therefore it is common to see colleges have both a command like decision structure and a parallel structure that promotes participation over authority where possible.
Intrinsically, the belief in and capacity to thrive in this latter participatory governance model can scale the hurdles often found in command structures if we work at it.
Both systems can and often do coexist with reasonable efficiency and effectiveness. It is also important to note that the goal of a community-centered process isn’t to eliminate the command processes. If well implemented it can strengthen them. People know that hard decisions are sometimes necessary. But when these are made in the context of a community-first culture participants are more likely to respect and support the command choices that are unavoidable.
A key facet to this though is the requirement for a significant change in personal mindset when shifting between a command process and a community centered one. For those of us new to this it can take some time to come to grips with being less tied to what we think is right as we shift towards letting the consensus develop our direction and potentially revise our individual goals. This is in part due to the notion that when many of us enter into the governance foray we do so trying to sustain the same expectations described above. We want what we want and we want it now. When we are not getting our needs met through our normal command structure we are grateful to enter this governance venue where we have voice and will be heard. We are united with our colleagues and we get really excited when our influence inspires results that are to our liking.
Like the command structure, this works as long as the community wants what we want. However, when these “wants” begin to diverge and we don’t shift ourselves internally to a community-first perspective then we tend to get very frustrated. We quickly begin to surmise that this “Shared Governance” thing doesn’t work, that it’s a complete waste of time.
The problem is partly tied to our culture of instant gratification. If given some time those of us who learn to thrive in participatory governance begin to find that while we do not always get what we directly want, most often the community in which we reside does get something that’s better than what we, or any participant wants. Somewhere in this evolution we begin to realize that our expectations are changing, that in fact being a celebrant of building a strong community is not only far more rewarding, it also provides much better results for us and our students.
In a very practical sense entering into a consultative environment requires us to shift our mindset from one of having voice and using it to influence, to one of giving others their voice and allowing ourselves to be influenced by those other voices. When this works, when members really let go of their entering-expectations and let the community flesh out a consensus, most will come away from the experience with a profound sense of productive resonance. The community “ah-ha” is a great thing to be a part of.
The inverse of this is the contentious knock-down, dragout shootouts where all members are lockstep at odds in getting their own way and nothing else. We’ve all been to, or more aptly been brutalized by these slug-fests. The stark and simple fact is collegial consultation cannot function where we as a community cannot rise above the competitive culture of rank and file command.
Thus it can be argued that to thrive in a viable culture of participatory governance requires a certain amount of faith. Essentially we are taking it on faith that by letting go of what we think is best and focusing on supporting each other, our ability to thrive will far exceed any notions we brought to the table. This is particularly poignant when we consider the idea that we serve students, we don’t own them, that more often we share them. So why are we competing when we are trying to serve the same students?
The next time you are sitting in a meeting, consider what you would do to help the other participants feel heard. Think about what you would do to help build out and advocate for the other’s cause. Ponder for a moment who it is they serve and how they really aren’t any different from those you serve.
If the meeting is a cantankerous affair address that facet of it—or help the presiding chair address it. An open, frank conversation about expectations can do a lot to air out the energy and then work towards a culture that values the well being of the community and its broader role as a student centered academy.
Ultimately aren’t these the values we want to instill in our students? Even the most self-centered of us has to admit there will come a time where we’ve become old and feeble and need increasing amounts of help from those generations we’ve raised. Instilling traits of community service and giving, caring attitudes are in our best interests. What better way to do this than by modeling the behavior we will eventually seek as a matter of our own wellbeing.