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Of Shared Governance & Trust

Of Shared Governance & Trust Survey reveals differences in institutional values between HBCUs, TWIs, but not all scholars agree                             By KENDRA HAMILTONA new survey appears to reveal sharply different perceptions of shared governance between historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and traditionally White institutions (TWIs). The study’s author, Dr. James T. Minor, a research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center for Higher Education Policy, is cautious in evaluating his findings. “I don’t think we understand all we need to understand about the context. We shouldn’t take the numbers at face value,” he says. But the statistics tell an interesting tale of their own.
In answer to the statement, “shared governance is an important part of my institution’s values and identity,” 69 percent of HBCUs surveyed in 2003 agreed or strongly agreed. By comparison, a 2002 sample — composed mostly of traditionally White institutions — had an 84 percent rate of agreement with the statement.
Breaking the HBCU figures down by respondent provided an even more interesting pattern of responses: 77 percent of chief academic officers agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, as did 70 percent of faculty senate leaders. But among department chairs, whom Minor saw as speaking for the faculty ranks, only 24 percent agreed or strongly agreed.
The comparable figures for TWIs in 2002 were: 95 percent for chief academic officers, 86 percent for senate chairs and 76 percent for department chairs.
Minor saw a similarly startling pattern of responses in answer to a second statement. Asked if “trust between the president and faculty is good or sufficient to move the institution forward,” 77 percent of the institutions in the 2002 survey of TWIs agreed or strongly agreed. The overall agreement rate for HBCUs was significantly lower — 68 percent. But there were interesting variances by institutional type.
At baccalaureate-granting HBCUs, the pattern of responses was, in fact, quite similar to that at TWIs: 74 percent agreed or strongly agreed. But at doctoral-granting HBCUs, the agreement rate fell sharply — down to 57 percent.
And the breakdown by status of respondent continued to show a sharp disconnect between higher-ups and the rank-and-file. A whopping 97 percent of chief academic officers at HBCUs agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. At lower ranks, however, agreement plummeted. Only 65 percent of faculty senate leaders and 57 percent of departmental leaders agreed or strongly agreed.
National education observers see reasons for concern.
“In this survey, as in any survey, definitions are very important. Shared governance means different things to different people. Unless it is defined, there is no telling what type of response you may get,” notes Dr. Nancy King, a former faculty senator at Texas Southern University and publisher and editor of University Faculty Voice, an independently owned newspaper that specializes in issues of concern to HBCU faculty. But having noted that, King adds, “The statistic for doctoral HBCUs is very disappointing because these institutions should be the leaders of the entire Black education community.”
Dr. Yolanda Moses, former president of the American Association for Higher Education, who currently holds joint appointments at the University of California-Riverside and the Claremont Graduate University, agrees.
Moses points to the fact that traditionally White institutions showed a similar pattern of variance by respondent on the “trust” issue: that is to say, 90 percent of chief academic officers at TWIs agreed with the “trust” statement, while only 76 percent of faculty senate chairs and 72 percent of department chairs did.
“I think what we’re seeing is a national issue, though it’s one that affects HBCUs more,” she says. “If this is what the data are showing, that gap (between higher-ups and rank-and-file) has to be closed. It has to be closed for effective leadership and learning to take place.”
Dr. M. Christopher Brown, executive director and chief research scientist at the United Negro College Fund’s (UNCF) Frederick Patterson Research Institute, says he’s not so sure that HBCUs are any different from majority White institutions in terms of shared governance.
“I can tell you, having spent my entire career (before coming to UNCF) at majority institutions like Missouri, University of Illinois and Penn State, what the president says runs the institution, what the dean says runs the college and what the department head says runs the unit,” Brown says. “We have more structures that provide the ‘illusion’ of faculty governance and participation but, as someone who has been serving in an administrative capacity for many years, I know a lot of decisions are made long before the faculty are ever given the opportunity to air their grievances and concerns. And what you end up with is tinkering around with the nuances instead of substance (of the decisions).
“I’m not sure if this is an area that affects HBCUs more. And that’s important because so little empirical research exists. What we have is partly anecdote, partly romantic mystique or just straight-up lies,” Brown says.A Matter of History
The survey results come at a time when HBCUs are suffering from something of an image problem in the areas of governance, tenure and academic freedom.
Both the University of the District of Columbia and Talladega College are on a list of institutions censured by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) for violations of academic freedom and tenure, says Dr. Robert Kreiser, associate secretary for the organization.
Complaints against Virginia State University, Morris Brown College and Meharry Medical College have erupted into news headlines in recent years. And there are AAUP investigations currently active at Dillard University, Livingstone College, Philander-Smith College and Shaw University.
“In almost every case, in addition to the issue related to the individual complaint, there were also issues of governance — what the faculty perceived as an authoritarian, autocratic leadership that would brook no opposition,” Kreiser explains. “Of course, I’m not saying that in every case there was an authoritarian president — or that this is generalizable to all historically Black institutions. We see only the problems that have been brought to our attention. We don’t know if we’re dealing with the tip of the iceberg — or if these are anomalies.”
Some observers insist the problems are not anomalies. Senior faculty members at HBCUs tended to be reluctant to be interviewed on the record for this story. One official active in faculty affairs, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, “If you had collected figures for rank-and-file faculty below the department chair level, I imagine the percentages would fall even lower. Many faculty see shared governance as window dressing for rather dictatorial rule.”
This is not surprising, King says. “It goes to the history of the creation of the two institutions. TWIs were created from the European model of an academy of scholars based on concepts of shared governance, tenure and academic freedom. HBCUs were created from the plantation model of slavery and oppression to provide ‘training’ — not ‘education’ — to newly freed slaves. Old habits are hard to break. Particularly when there is no desire to do so.”
Dr. Cordell Wynn, president emeritus of Stillman College in Tuscaloosa, Ala., agrees. But his analysis — as someone who led a historically Black institution for 17 years and chairman of the board with the UNCF and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) while serving on the board of the University of Alabama System — is even more far-reaching.
“I’ve thought about this a great deal, and, no matter what we say or like to admit to ourselves, slavery had a tremendous impact. We were shaped by a system where ‘the boss’ made all the decisions without input from anyone else, and when we became free people that was taken into how we organize our families, our schools, our churches — even how we train people to take the role of leadership.”
In White institutions, Wynn observes a model of receiving input and sharing power. In Black institutions, he says, “I see it all the time. A meeting will be called and it’s, ‘This meeting has been called to let you know what the president has decided.’ ” One could substitute the words “principal” or “pastor” or even “daddy,” he says, to much the same effect.
“There are some HBCUs that are run very similarly to White schools but, for the most part, they carry on as they have been taught to do,” Wynn says. “For example, (the late) Dr. Watkins at Alabama State was a wonderful man, but he ruled with an iron hand. They’ve had several presidents since then — there’s been a lot of turnover because the faculty and the lower echelons are not accustomed to any other style of leadership.”
Indeed, says Wynn, this could be one explanation for the high turnover among HBCU presidents more broadly. “They may get a very innovative person in there, but the faculty and the administrations say, ‘Dr. So-and-So didn’t do it this way,’ and it doesn’t last.”A New Leadership Model
But while hierarchical leadership has certainly had its heyday, its time is definitely passing. What’s needed, particularly now, says Moses — in a fiscal climate in which institutions are under increasing pressure to cut budgets, change curriculums, collapse and combine programs to eliminate duplication and to do it all in a hurry — is a nimble, flexible model of leadership that can respond to crises without fracturing the relationships that are so critical to institutional success.
“As we all know, curricular change moves at a glacial speed,” Moses notes. So “the board may be holding the president accountable, the president is holding the provost accountable and the provost is putting pressure on the departments. But the faculty are saying, ‘We need to form our committees!’ And everyone else is saying, ‘We don’t have time!’ ”
Inevitably there’s a lack of communication. Short cuts get taken — trust gets broken, Moses explains. And problems, rather than being worked out at the institutional level, then erupt into negative headlines.
Complicating the picture at HBCUs are the strong taboos against speaking frankly about the issues.
“As a result of the racism to which they were subjected, HBCUs have had to be really sensitive to how they’re perceived,” says Dr. Jane Buck, the first AAUP president to emerge from an HBCU.
“This has led to this feeling that critique is disloyal, that one is ‘washing dirty linen in public,’ and that you should instead maintain a united front,” explains Buck, professor emerita of psychology at Delaware State University, where she taught for 29 years.
But education leaders argue that, in the name of institutional success, it’s time to drop the united front and start a frank conversation on the issues.
“I think it should become a major concern,” says Wynn. “We need institutes, workshops and forums geared specifically to this issue of why decision-making in HBCUs is so different.”
Nevertheless, for the last two years, the AAUP has begun holding governance “summits” in partnership with the HBCU Faculty Development Network and other organizations, Buck says. But she notes that much more is needed and that each institution needs to carve out its own approach.
“HBCUs are as variable as any other group you want to look at,” she says. “We are not monolithic.”
Moses agrees. “Everybody has to rethink their roles — not just the faculty, but the presidents, provosts, the boards.”
The debate is particularly critical, says Minor, given the critical role that HBCUs play in society. They may represent only 3 percent of the nation’s institutions of higher learning, but they actually produce 25 percent of the undergraduate degrees attained by Black students.
Minor adds he’s well aware that the results of his survey will be controversial in some quarters. “There’s an extremely high level of sensitivity among HBCUs, and as an alumnus, I understand that point of view,” says Minor, a graduate of Jackson State University. “There’s been a long history of outsiders coming in, not understanding the context and reporting negative findings without exploring contributing factors that would explain the context.”
But he adds, “The survey doesn’t speak to the value of the institutions. It just points out a challenge that has to be addressed.”
On that point, Brown agrees. “These are campuses that have had the best of the faculty of color, that have graduated higher percentages of African American students year after year with scant resources — only a pittance of what’s in the state coffers — and they continue to do yeoman’s work. I think this is an important issue but we can’t just take one area of concern and overdramatize it, particularly not in the context of all the good these institutions do.”
Says King: “All of us who have an interest in the education of Black children and young adults should be very concerned. This certainly is something to be concerned about. And, yes, it is a wake-up call, but not just for administrators. It is a wake-up call for all of us.”
“I’m happy that people are taking up important research questions on HBCUs, but we must put (those questions) in a cultural and research context,” Brown says. “Minor’s work adds something new to the literature, but I don’t know if it’s a wake-up call. I’m 100 percent behind the notion that more study needs to be done.”

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