Effective Participation in Governance: Policies and Practices

President, ASCCC

Colleges regularly examine their board and administrative policies to ensure that they are up to date and aligned with statute and regulatory changes. In doing so, the academic senate is consulted regarding establishing or changing any policy that falls within academic and professional matters—the 10+1—or other policies related to faculty as designated in statute such as faculty evaluations, faculty hiring, minimum qualifications, administrator retreat rights, and the appointment of representatives to college bodies. Regularly reviewing policies is an effective practice that most, if not all, colleges have adopted over time.

Now for the hard question: Does your college actually follow the policies and procedures that were designed to ensure effective participation in governance? This question may be a bit tricky to answer. If you asked an administrator, a faculty member, a staff member, and a student, you might receive significantly different answers or, even worse, blank stares. Generally, colleges have in place governance policies and procedures that delineate the participation of administrators, faculty, classified staff, and students in governance.  Regarding faculty participation, district policy delineates the 10+1 and the designation of rely primarily or mutual agreement for each item, but often colleges do not take the next step and document how those policies are enacted. For example, the college may have an opportunity to apply for a grant that would establish a new educational program. According to the college’s governance policy, educational program development is in the 10+1 as an item regarding which the board of trustees or its designee must rely primarily on the advice of the local academic senate; however, the college does not have a procedure on educational program initiation and development. In the absence of a formal process, exercising the senate’s role in educational program development may be determined by past practice, if one exists in which the senate had a role, or it may become a negotiation between the senate and administrators. In either case, such circumstances are hardly ideal for ensuring effective participation in governance or, for that matter, good decision making.

Collegiality in Action (CIA)

The Academic Senate for California Community Colleges provides a number of resources to support our local senates and colleges. One resource is the Collegiality in Action Program. In partnership with the Community College League of California (CCLC), the CIA Program is a series of four types of services developed to assist colleges and districts in successfully designing and implementing effective participation in governance for faculty, staff, administrators, and students as required by statute and regulation. Representatives from the ASCCC and CCLC—generally the ASCCC president, the CCLC president, and a president or chancellor from a college or district—conduct the services. The first three services, Effective Participation Fundamentals, Effective Participation Focused Study, and Issue Resolution, are leveled, beginning with a governance orientation or refresher on effective participation with subsequent presentations becoming more specific to address situations or challenges. Finally, the program offers a fourth service, Special Workshops and Presentations, to assist with particular issues.

In preparation for a visit to a college, the presenters request college governance documents as well as search the college’s website. They frequently review board and administrative policies, governance manuals, and visual representations of how governance works at the college. Many colleges have documents that support the board and administrative policies and procedures, but these materials can be difficult to find and may be sparse in details regarding how governance is enacted at the college. The availability and details of the official documents can be quite helpful in getting a sense of the college’s governance processes, but nothing compares to the conversations that happen during a visit. While the presenters cover the basics of governance and provide scenarios for the attendees to work through, discussions of current college governance processes frequently emerge. In discussing the college’s decision-making processes, confusion and at times outright disagreement may occur regarding how governance structures work. While the presenters explore these differences and ask questions of the participants, the discussion frequently shifts from written policies and moves into governance practices.

Practice vs. Policy

Over time, college governance may alter based on the behavior of individuals. This shift is by no means nefarious or even necessarily intentional, but when policies are not specific, individuals will bring their own interpretations to how those policies should be enacted. These interpretations create behaviors that take hold over time to become practices or customs in college governance. Practices are often created when the implementation of policies becomes a negotiation between individuals. Fundamental to those negotiations are the relationships between and among individuals and groups on campus. If relationships are healthy, with trust and goodwill firmly established, practices are created and governance works well. If issues arise that cause tension or conflict, more often than not a positive resolution occurs because good relationships and trust exist. In these cases, the governance structure works because of the relationships that have allowed practices to be developed over time. Alternatively, where relationships are troubled and trust has been undermined, governance structures that rely on past practice will not function well or perhaps at all. Regardless of whether current governance practices are working, relying on past practice to enact effective participation in governance is of concern.

Practices are in people; they are shaped by values, beliefs, experiences, and emotion. Relying on individuals and relationships can often, in the long-term, undermine effective participation in governance, especially as our colleges experience turnover in personnel. Many of our faculty, staff, and administrators are retiring, and colleges are hiring individuals that do not have the shared customs or conventions of the college. If governance practices are not documented, local academic senates may find that they must continually negotiate their role in some or many aspects of the college governance structure. Further, with the disruption caused by the number of initiatives and programs colleges have recently implemented as well as the prospect of adopting a guided pathways framework, colleges may find governance structures stressed and even fractured as pressure builds to make decisions quickly.

Strengthening Governance Structures

The time may be right to evaluate your college governance structure. Of course, the best time to do such an evaluation is when times are good, relationships are positive, constituent groups are working well together, and tension is minimal. Evaluating and changing governance processes is often more challenging when conflict and tension are common on campus; however, such a situation may be unavoidable. Although relationships may be strained and governance structures may be showing signs of stress, reviewing formal policies and procedures as well as identifying informal practices will help assess what is or is not working well, what should be put into policy, and what should remain a practice. Generally, not all practices need to be enshrined in formal policy, since some practices should remain as they are for a variety of reasons. At times a less formal practice serves the college well. Each college must make those decisions based on its own college culture and values. Also, identifying all practices may be difficult. Often colleges do not know that what they thought was a policy is actually just informal practice until someone goes looking for documentation and discovers that it does not exist. Regardless, most colleges will find value in identifying practices and determining what should be a formal policy or procedure and what should remain a practice.

Of course, a college may not need to or even be able to identify and evaluate all policies, procedures, and practices all at once, but beginning the process of doing so may be helpful. We are experiencing tumultuous times, and our colleges are facing the opportunities and challenges that come with significant change. Strengthening our governance structures will provide the stability our colleges need to embrace and endure change.