A Common Meaning of Faculty Governance

Essential in a rapidly changing social and global context

Claire E. Sterk

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs

James W. Wagner

University President

Casually ask faculty members at Emory how they define faculty governance, and two themes emerge. First, most seem to focus on faculty governance at the departmental or the school/college level, in which their appointment is housed. Second, they view faculty governance as a mechanism to oversee the curriculum and guide decisions about the promotion, and if applicable, tenure of a colleague. From our perspective, the need for engaged faculty governance at the university level deserves at least as much consideration, though. Such attention is especially essential during this era of the rapidly shifting landscape in higher education. 

Conversations about changes in higher education that impact liberal arts research universities like Emory highlight the need for effective university-level faculty governance. It is essential to address issues in several domains, such as 1) the increased variety of faculty appointments as opposed to the traditional dominance of tenured appointments, 2) the changes in sharing scholarly discoveries, including the decline of university presses and the increase of open access journals, 3) the reduced ability to fund research with external sources owing to fewer funding streams, and those streams that do remain having fewer resources, 4) the impact of technological advances on teaching and learning (for example, online education, flipped classrooms, and open publishing), and 5) the increased costs of a college education, especially at a university that is need-blind and is committed to meeting the full financial need for its diverse student body. Further, these changes are occurring at a time of increased legal regulations and compliance demands in higher education.

This incomplete list highlights the importance of ensuring faculty governance at the university level that is prepared to engage in complex matters. To have an impact, we must arrive at a common meaning of faculty governance. Having participated actively in faculty governance at a variety of universities—both in the United States and abroad and at public as well as private universities—we have observed that the lack of a shared definition of university-level faculty governance frequently results in less effective and targeted faculty engagement. That imprecision tends to create an environment in which—even when all stakeholders are committed to collaboration and transformation—misunderstandings and limited progress result from tacit assumptions that all share the same views on faculty governance.

The university Faculty Council is the central faculty governance body at Emory. Although the exact date of its creation is not clear, we can verify that it has been in existence for at least 25 years. The minutes of previous meetings may provide insights into the main issues addressed during previous decades—including the identification of topics that have emerged more than once, those that were controversial or difficult to address, and others that resulted in major changes in university policy or programming. These topics include the establishment of the Emory University Emeritus College, the automatic extension of the tenure clock for the birth or adoption of a child for tenure-track faculty who have not yet received tenure, or the more recent modifications to the conflict of interest policy. 

The executive committee of the Faculty Council consists of the current and past chairs as well as the chair-elect. A total of forty-two faculty members serve on the council, eighteen of whom are voting members selected by the faculty in their academic home unit. They also serve a three-year term on the University Senate (which extends beyond faculty to include staff and students) as well as the Faculty Council. Eight additional, non-voting faculty members are appointed annually. Other non-voting members include chairs of the six standing committees of the Faculty Council and faculty members who serve as counselors to the Board of Trustees. 

We have observed that the lack of a shared definition of university-level faculty governance frequently results in less effective and targeted faculty engagement.

This structure creates a balance of 18 voting and 24 non-voting members. (For more information on the distribution by academic unit and faculty status, see http://facultycouncil.emory.edu/.) As members of the academic community at Emory, we wonder how a different number of voting versus non-voting members, representation by academic unit, length of term, and other factors might impact the influence of the university Faculty Council. 

From conversations with the faculty, we know that several view faculty governance at the university level as less relevant than that in their own academic homes. Although we disagree, it is understandable that this view may arise from Emory’s decentralized organizational structure. Owing to this decentralization, many decisions are made at the level of Emory’s schools and colleges, creating a system in which deans have the responsibility to make decisions, serve semi-autonomously, and wisely use discretion in decision-making. Sometimes as faculty members, we forget that with this responsibility comes accountability, in this case from the deans to the provost and others in central administration. Faculty governance operates in this same framework. 

Emory has made much progress in the area of faculty governance. For example, the Faculty Council now includes tenured, tenure track, and non-tenure track faculty. Another strength is the use of standing and special committees, including those charged by administrators, such as the Faculty Life Course Committee or the University Research Committee. Membership on these committees allows for input beyond only those faculty members who serve on the council. 

Within our schools and colleges, faculty determine the content of the curriculum, student learning outcomes and assessments of this learning, and standards for reviewing faculty’s tenure and promotion. Similarly, faculty members oversee faculty recruitment, and they are first in line to make decisions on promotion and tenure. Currently most academic units at the university are examining ways to improve current faculty governance. 

At the central or university level, opportunities for improvement also exist. For example, what governance structures do we need to put in place for teaching and offering courses across academic units? What processes do we need for effective engagement in online education and other academic innovations in which only some faculty are interested? What are priority areas in research and scholarship that, despite the variation and uncertainty of external funding sources, will always require institutional investment? What strategies for faculty governance are missing when it comes to setting priorities for recruitment beyond that within each academic unit? Is there a need for reviewing ranks and tracks for faculty appointments at the university level? What processes and structures do we have in place to ensure that “local” decisions are aligned with not only Emory’s mission but also available resources? 

In exploring questions such as these, we will continue to make progress on faculty governance at Emory. To us, this exploration is not a choice but a necessity. Let’s see if we can maintain and further improve governance that views faculty and administrators as unified parties rather than adversaries, one that seeks to establish a vibrant academic community that is ready to respond to a rapidly changing social and global context.