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Thursday, March 29, 2018

Legal Ed's Futures: No. 39 (Robert Ahdieh)

The Promise of Shared Governance

Inspired by Luke Bierman’s description (#16) of the robust dynamic of faculty engagement that gave rise to Elon’s bold set of curricular and professional development reforms in the last few years, I wanted to share a few reflections on shared governance in legal education today.

To begin, I think we do well to recognize distinct phases of decision-making in academic settings (and beyond) and the appropriately distinct role of faculty at each of those phases.  The first phase is defining the strategic vision for our school: Where do we want to go?  The next phase is developing ideas for how best to pursue those goals. What are our tactics?  The third phase is executing on those initiatives, and the fourth is assessing them:  Was the program a success?  Should we abandon it, modify it, or continue as is? 

Our role as faculty should be at its acme in the first and last phase.  Too often, however, we brush past the first phase.  (Let the one among you who likes strategic planning speak up!)  And we don’t give nearly enough attention to the role of faculty at the assessment phase.  We desperately need structures to ensure that when we do something, thus, faculty join in measuring the results against the vision set forth at the outset.

What about the second and third phases?  I see that as a more nuanced question.

Faculty have an invaluable role to play in the second phase – developing new ideas and approaches – but we can sometimes be overly cautious on this score: until we know everything, we feel like we shouldn’t try anything.  The changing landscape of higher education, however, requires greater receptivity to experimentation.

It is at the third phase of execution, however, that the effects of that changing landscape show up most starkly.  Simply put, I don’t believe we have the luxury of not granting administrators and staff the lead role in executing on the vision and initiatives the faculty has determined to embrace.  The alternative – that we retain that task as faculty, to be carried out alongside our scholarly and teaching obligations – creates the risk that important undertakings will fall by the wayside.  If the faculty’s role in defining the vision and assessing outcomes is not shortchanged, however, I believe that delegation can be a powerful tool.

Beyond that, one broader reflection:

In my own experience, strong faculty engagement is essential to the success of any effort at moving an academic institution forward in a sustainable fashion.  I fully appreciate why many academic administrators see peril in such engagement – fearing some resulting push toward perfect transparency or decision-making by committee of the whole. 

In my own experience, however, it is far more often disengagement of faculty that is the greatest challenge.  Not any excess enthusiasm to be involved.  The latter, I believe, can almost always be channeled to productive ends.  In the absence of engagement, however, it is all but impossible to do great things.

Robert Ahdieh (Emory)

Posted by Dan Rodriguez on March 29, 2018 at 12:00 PM | Permalink


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