Constituent groups working together to improve, advance shared university governance
February 12, 2021
Enhanced opportunities to share in the responsibilities and decisions that guide university policies and priorities is at the center of a Virginia Tech effort to improve its existing system of shared governance and to work more collaboratively with constituent groups across the campus.
The establishment of two review bodies charged with defining principles and developing recommendations for reshaping shared governance is helping university leaders synthesize the insights and contributions of faculty, staff, and students to make informed decisions on behalf of the entire Virginia Tech community.
Co-chaired by Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clarke and former Faculty Senate President John Ferris, the President’s Committee on Governance was tasked with defining a set of guiding principles for effective and equitable governance and recommending changes to the existing system of governance required to enact these principles. The committee, composed of a representative cross-section of faculty, staff, administrators, and students, evaluated the university’s current structure of shared governance; the role that faculty, staff and student representative bodies play in the process; and limitations to and opportunities for these bodies to be more engaged in the governance system.
“Virginia Tech’s existing system of shared governance has long been an important and effective university function consisting of a range of commissions, each dedicated to addressing specific areas of interest,” said Clarke. “Acknowledging that this system has served the university well, we now have an opportunity to explore how we can improve the existing system by engaging a broader range of constituent groups. Our framework and path to improvement relies on recognizing the importance of the roles to be played by each of the representative bodies, in accordance with their respective domains of interest.”
The committee submitted its initial report to President Tim Sands that included an assessment of the current shared governance structure at Virginia Tech and a set of recommendations designed to better align university governance with the needs of a 21st-century university and Virginia Tech’s Beyond Boundaries vision. Sands accepted the report and asked that the committee continue its work under the leadership of Clarke and current Faculty Senate President Eric Kaufman and draft more detailed plans to be considered and approved by University Council and Virginia Tech’s Board of Visitors. The first step in this process was approval of a resolution by the University Council that lays out the framework for the new system of governance. Work is now underway to draft the details of the new system.
Recommendations made by the President’s Committee on Governance are centered on the importance of elevating the roles and accountabilities of representative bodies, including the Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, A/P Faculty Senate, Graduate Student Assembly and the Student Government Association. These bodies would all be identified as “senates” and have domains of interest aligned with their roles in the university community. University commissions and committees would be reorganized in relation to the senates and a new university council cabinet would facilitate coordination, inclusiveness, and efficiency of governance processes. The recommendations also envision a revised approach to how the university conducts initial work on broad academic initiatives so as to engage philosophies and practices at the center of Virginia Tech’s land-grant mission.
“Decisions made by all of us hold the potential for a better outcome than decisions made by any one of us,” said Kaufman. “The Principles of Accreditation from SACSCOC require Virginia Tech policy decisions be based ‘on the authority of faculty in academic and governance matters,’ and we are pursuing better approaches toward that end, but we are going beyond the minimum requirements. As we advance the system of shared governance at Virginia Tech, we are involving stakeholders from all across the university, and I believe the resulting structure and community culture will be the envy of other institutions around the country.”
Working in parallel with the President’s Committee on Governance, the Task Force on the Future of Student Governance has been charged with developing a set of recommendations for redesigning the structure of student governance that represents more effectively the voice of the undergraduate, graduate, and professional students at Virginia Tech. The task force is focused on defining more clearly the distinct roles and responsibilities of the various bodies involved in student governance and relationships between them, and foster inclusion, collaboration, and coordination among those groups.
“Involving students in the university governance process is critically important as it provides a truly powerful learning opportunity and invites students into decisions that shape the environment so critical for their success,” said Vice President for Student Affairs Frank Shushok. “As Virginia Tech grows, especially in its diversity, it is critical for us to understand how all voices are heard and how we can structure opportunities and systems that increase participation and broaden perspectives about what Virginia Tech can do together. Actively participating in governance provides a laboratory for students as they prepare to be citizens and leaders of good will and engagement wherever their education takes them after graduation.”
The 13-member Task Force on the Future of Student Governance, co-chaired by Shushok and Vice President for Policy and Governance Kim O’Rourke, will assess the strengths and deficiencies of the current system, benchmark best practices at other universities, and develop a set of recommendations tailored to Virginia Tech’s overall system of shared governance, which may include proposed additions, eliminations, mergers, or scope modifications to the existing governance entities.
“It is important that we consider the functions of all student constituent groups and how we work together to create opportunities to shape policies that affect them every day,” said O’Rourke. “Through the efforts of the Task Force on the Future of Student Governance, we are working to build a collaborative structure for engaging students in the university’s decision-making processes, and the policies and priorities that will shape both their Virginia Tech experience and the future direction of the institution.”
Student governance at Virginia Tech has evolved and improved over time, and Virginia Tech remains committed to empowering students and providing them with experiential learning and leadership opportunities that allow them to serve and help shape the university’s goals and vision.
The Task Force on the Future of Student Governance began its work this fall and will share preliminary recommendations with the President’s Committee on Governance. Final recommendations will be presented to Sands with a goal of implementation during the fall semester of 2021.