By Greg Varner
As part of the George Washington University’s commitment to strengthen shared governance among faculty, administration and trustees, the Shared Governance Task Force held four virtual town halls last week, designed as listening sessions where faculty could voice their opinions in response to specific questions about shared governance.
Using this faculty input, the task force plans to identify key themes and create a survey, with assistance from GW’s Office of Academic Planning and Assessment. Faculty members who could not attend a virtual town hall are invited to visit the website and provide feedback there by Friday, January 28 at 11:59pm ET.
Members of the task force include trustees Amr ElSawy, M.S.E.E. ’81 (co-chair), Mark Chichester, B.B.A. ’90, J.D. ’93, Madeleine Jacobs, B.S. ’68, HON ’03 and Todd Klein; faculty members Shaista E. Khilji (co-chair), Joseph Cordes, Christine Pintz and Arthur Wilson; and from the university administration, Christopher Alan Bracey (co-chair), Teresa Murphy, Paul Wahlbeck and Richard Weitzner.
The sessions were facilitated by David Maxwell, president emeritus of Drake University and an Association of Governing Boards senior consultant and senior fellow, and Ann Franke, a former tenured general counsel of the American Association of University Professors and president of Wise Results, LLC.
The town halls were open to all faculty to participate. The format for each of the four sessions was the same, beginning with the introduction of members, some of whom delivered brief comments.
Khilji welcomed participants and explained the purpose of the town halls.
The task force plans to launch its survey of the faculty at the end of the month, Khilji said, and will provide an update on the timing and content of the survey soon.
Speaking for the trustees, ElSawy stressed the task force’s desire to listen. “I certainly want to reiterate the board’s greatest respect for faculty input,” he said. “We’re eager to hear constructive suggestions and comments. The task force will continue to update the faculty and the broader campus community throughout this process. Our goal is to strengthen the George Washington University as we work together to tackle the challenges facing higher education.”
On behalf of the university administration, Bracey welcomed participants and emphasized the task force’s interest in looking forward.
“We invite you to focus on the future,” Bracey said, “and how shared governance can best function at GW going forward.”
President Mark S. Wrighton attended the sessions, expressing his commitment to hear all of the comments and suggestions. The university’s future, he said, looks bright.
At each town hall session, four integrated questions were posed to faculty:
- On what university matters is it most critical for the faculty, administration and board to collaborate to fulfill the university’s mission effectively?
- What steps can the administration and board take for effective engagement with the faculty in critical decision areas?
- What do you consider the best ways for the administration, board and faculty to share appropriate, timely and effective information on critical matters?
- How can the university best draw on faculty expertise and perspectives in making critical decisions?
Key themes emerging in response to these questions had to do with the importance of involving more diverse voices from the faculty in planning discussions. There is a perception that administrative appointments fall to a core group of long-time professors, some said, depriving junior faculty of the chance to contribute (and depriving the university of the benefit of their input).
After saying that she would like to see more faculty involvement from the earliest stages, one faculty member used a metaphor to describe her ideal model: A three-legged stool, she said, is known for its stability in uneven places, with each leg of the stool — faculty, administrators and trustees — holding up its share of the weight.
Several faculty members expressed a desire for more opportunities to interact with board members, possibly over periodic dinners.
Sometimes decisions have to be made quickly, many people agreed, and it is also understood that faculty and board members each have their own prerogatives. While emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic require quick decision-making, there is a danger that faculty input will be decreased. Care should be taken to strike the right balance, perhaps having ready information about the specific interests of faculty members who may then be rapidly involved.
Several faculty members called for more targeted communication. It can be difficult, many acknowledged, to preserve the necessary degree of nuance pertaining to complicated matters. Communications could be fine-tuned in the interests of greater efficiency, clarity and timeliness, several participants agreed.
Many participating faculty members expressed a desire to develop a shared understanding of the challenges of higher education and the best ways for the university to move forward. Others advocated for the appointment of an ombudsman to investigate issues of concern.