ASU Finally Game for Real Shared Governance?


In the locker-room huddle that is ASU’s Administration, it seems possible that they might break with the old play book and try something that resembles a touch-down for shared governance.

After being stung by a series of protocol breaches that directly affected their professional interests, Faculty senators began reviewing, at the December 2nd meeting, broader shared government issues. All this is good news, and the Senate should be applauded for dipping its toe in new waters.

Discussions also revealed how little consideration ASU has given these issues over the last decade. Senators had no consensus as to what defined shared governance, let alone how to implement it.

This lacuna became apparent in a meeting in 2014 held by the now-moribund Campus Advocacy Group (CAG), attended by former ASU president David Svaldi. When it was suggested that CAG should explore how to improve the quality of shared governance, the ex-prez scoffed that shared governance had been a problem “for at least ten years”, as if it were ineluctable. Not long after, he stopped attending meetings.

David Svaldi was right. Shared governance has been a long-identified and much-studied problem. Way back in 2001, there was the Institutional Climate Survey. Then in 2009, there was another survey of employee satisfaction with shared governance. In 2013, the now-Assistant Vice President of Academic Affairs, Margaret Doell conducted an excellent study which concluded, among other things, that shared governance was hampered by ASU’s lack of transparency and poor communication. That was followed a few months later by CIELO’s survey of Inclusive Excellence (inclusiveness being central to shared governance). Then the ASU HLC5 committee commissioned another survey in May this year, using the same framework as the 2009 study.

The results were fundamentally the same: Administrative employees say they are satisfied with the state of shared governance; faculty think it is in pretty poor shape; all other employees say they feel alienated, unheard and disregarded.

So to recap, ASU has studied its navel five times, got much the same result five times, and has sat on its hands for 15 years.

No wonder employees are frustrated! When CAG facilitated workshops at the end of last spring asking employees how to improve shared governance, the blow-back was resounding: “We keep telling you the same stuff, but you never do anything about it!! How can we take you or anyone else seriously?”

Now, perhaps, things are changing. Senators are asking what does shared governance look like, and how should it be defined?

FYI, under the scientifically-disproven title of “ASU values, and actively engages in, shared decision-making,” the ASU website already has a definition, which, when read at the Senate meeting, got approving nods. However, shared governance is not just a Faculty concern. A test for the Senate is to see if it effectively lobbies for all other employee and student groups on campus; proof that it has truly grasped the nettle.

But the old culture is still strong. While some senators expressed support for the aspirational definition of shared governance on ASU’s website, other senators reflexively sought to emphasize existing problems before actually exploring solutions. Almost immediately, the conversation turned to fear factors. What about liability for shared governance decisions? Who pays if ASU makes a mistake? We all know that centralized decision-making at ASU is a problem, but isn’t decentralized decision-making equally a problem? Doesn’t decision-making come not only with responsibility but also with risk? These are all good questions when it comes to refining constructive solutions, but show-stoppers when you don’t yet have any.

A fundamental problem is that ASU does not have a problem-solving culture, at least not in practical terms. It is so habituated to shrugging its shoulders, rolling its eyes, and asking only rhetorically: “What can we do?” It will take time and continued effort to evade the linebackers and tacklers. Still, the ball seems to have started rolling. Let’s see if the quick-of-mind and the fleet-of-foot can scoop it up and run with it.

We’re all cheering for a touch-down.