PHOTOS BY MELISSA LOGAN
Last spring, the chair of the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary board of directors asked the seminary president to assemble a six-member task force with this challenging assignment: “Clarify ‘shared governance’ by the next board meeting.” The newly formed group — two faculty members, two board members, and two administrators, including me as chair — got to work quickly. We were charged with educating the seminary community about shared governance, suggesting appropriate roles for board and faculty in the development of academic programs, and recommending ways to improve shared governance practices. An update on our work was due at a joint meeting of the faculty and board just six months later.
The task force jump-started the effort by circulating several resources among our members and discussing them. Our most enthusiastic response was reserved for a new publication from AGB Press titled Shared Governance in Times of Change: A Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges by Steven C. Bahls. It was concise (105 pages) and we felt it had the potential to ignite rich discussion.
On our recommendation, the seminary provided copies for the entire board and faculty and asked them to read three chapters: chapter 2, which explores traditional models of shared governance and suggests a better version for the 21st century; chapter 4, which examines barriers to shared governance; and chapter 6, which looks at best practices.
The buzz I heard in the halls confirmed that the book was accomplishing our first task — to clarify exactly what “shared governance” means. According to the book, shared governance has two key components: a system for creating alignment of stakeholders around institutional direction, and a system of checks and balances related to operational issues and decision making.
The task force believed the first part of the definition is the most critical for success, so we began reviewing the seminary’s traditional approach to curriculum development, taking into account our accrediting agency’s emphasis on aligning programs with mission. For example, historically the faculty has initiated the creation of new programs by formulating goals and outcomes and determining the required curriculum, and then the faculty has submitted the package to the board for approval. But our task force’s recommendation, which we’re still refining, expands that process to include collaborative discussions about how proposed programs align with the seminary’s vision, mission, and purpose.
In the next step, the task force studied the seminary’s shared governance practices, tweaking some and adding others. One suggestion, which the board quickly affirmed, will ensure nonvoting faculty representation on most board committees. Another provides for joint sessions of the faculty’s academic affairs committee and the board’s education committee. Yet to be determined are ways the faculty can increase its involvement in the development of the seminary budget.
Throughout the process, the task force met nine times and logged more than 15 hours of good discussion. From the outset, we knew that shared governance can only succeed in a culture of trust and transparency. This was succinctly stated by Leanna Fuller, a faculty member on the task force, during the November 2014 board meeting: “You can’t move forward if you don’t have trust, and it’s hard to have trust if you don’t know the persons you’re working with.”
Much of the November meeting agenda was designed to do just that — to help faculty and board members become better acquainted. Breaking into small groups gave us ample time to discuss personal questions like “Why have you chosen to serve on the board?” and “Why are you passionate about teaching at this institution?”
At that meeting we also collaborated on questions linked to the Shared Governance book, and the conversation was so energetic that I frequently had to call “time” so we could move on. Our final discussion question asked how we could strengthen collaboration between board and faculty. Everyone scribbled responses on 3-by-5 cards, which will be summarized in a final report from the task force. We envision it will become a living document that will carry us forward as the seminary continues to discuss shared governance practices.
We know there are challenges ahead, but this is a notable start. No one thinks we’ve solved every governance issue or that the board and faculty are in lockstep alignment. Realistically, time will tell how significant this turns out to be, but it feels like we’re at a transformational point in the life of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. If we grab that and run with it, we see the potential to do things for the Kingdom of God that we can’t even imagine.
Initially I made the mistake that a lot of people make: I thought shared governance meant that we all must be involved in every decision of the institution. Of course, that’s not true. So, perhaps the greatest challenge for the task force was educating ourselves — faculty and board — about what shared governance is — and what it isn’t.
There was skepticism at first. One of my senior colleagues was pivotal is dispelling doubts by pointing out that this was an opportunity for us as faculty to help set the future direction of the seminary. He saw the possibility of a more collaborative, clear way of doing shared governance.
I don’t want to suggest that our work will result in smooth sailing from here on out. Faculty and board members come from different places and have different concerns. Conflicts and clashes of priorities happen at all institutions. What will change is the way we negotiate the conflicts. I think we were very successful in starting to build relationships and trust at the November meeting. With those bonds in place, people will be more willing to listen to each other and live with whatever decisions emerge. They will know that they were heard and that their concerns were taken seriously.
It seems unlikely that people will be willing to go back to the old model now that they’ve experienced how it can be. I feel like they’re going to say, “This is what we want going forward.”
We’re not done with working on shared governance, but we’ve taken a great first step. The joint meeting with board and faculty was potentially “high risk,” because we were trying something very new, but it went extraordinarily well. The faculty and board were truly engaged in the conversation about how we could work more closely together under a shared governance rubric.
Pittsburgh Theological Seminary intends to be among the strong survivors of the sea changes that clearly are taking place in seminary education. We can’t do that without each other. It’s my hope that we will continue to know each other better and reduce the gap that often exists between responsibilities and perceptions.
We’re currently searching for a new seminary president. One of the questions we’ll ask candidates during the interview process will deal with shared governance: “How would you continue the work that we’ve begun in this area?” The answer will be crucial, because we’re committed to moving this forward.
In addition to Shared Governance in Times of Change: A Practical Guide for Universities and Colleges, by Steven C. Bahls (AGB Press, 2014), other helpful resources that the Pittsburgh Seminary task force consulted included:
• Governance Reconsidered, by Susan Resneck Pierce (Jossey-Bass, 2014). For a review that appeared in the Autumn 2014 issue of In Trust, see www.intrust.org/CautionaryTales.
• Theological Education 44:2 (2009).
Additional articles on shared governance are available in the In Trust magazine archives at www.intrust.org/Magazine/Article-Archive/topicID/119.
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