Opportunities generally seem to present themselves at inopportune times; challenges invariably do. Challenges seek us out, but opportunities frequently have to be discovered and then pursued. And we should not assume that we can always tell one from the other, at least initially. Indeed, discerning the opportunities amidst the challenges may require substantial analysis, thought, and deliberation. It seems to me that the best advice we can offer one another in times like these is simply: “be prepared.”
Obviously, being prepared means something different for a climbing or backpacking trip as compared to university operations. One of the reasons I believe that shared governance is critical to the success of a university is that it is an essential factor in order to “be prepared.” Shared governance assures that multiple minds, with diverse experience and expertise, and representing a variety of perspectives, will be involved in assessing the challenges and opportunities that arise. What may appear to be insignificant or unimportant to a single individual or group, others may properly recognize as a serious threat or a significant new opportunity. Moreover, broader participation assists in formulating the best institutional response.
Shared governance also fosters greater transparency and accountability. In higher education, “accountability” is frequently invoked in the context of an institution’s external constituencies. Accountability in this context is certainly essential. Equally important is the accountability of the many members of a university community to each other, which is aided by robust, collegial shared governance. Mutual accountability creates the appropriate environment for consistent and sustained transparency. In turn, a commitment to accountability and transparency is central to the goal to “be prepared.”
However, for a university to thrive in the current climate of substantial and rapid change, it must be flexible, adaptable, and responsive – and this means that some of our current practices in shared governance must also adapt. In short, shared governance needs to become more flexible and responsive; we need to make decisions more quickly and without regard to the academic calendar. Given the magnitude of the issues we have successfully dealt with in the past, and the technologies now available, I am confident we can create a 21st century version of shared governance that enables us to truly be prepared to deal with all the challenges and opportunities that may come our way.