SHARED GOVERNANCE: ROSES EMERGE FROM THE BRIARS
RUNNING HEAD: SHARED GOVERNANCE: ROSES EMERGE FROM THE BRIARS
Shared Governance: Roses Emerge from the Briars
Stakeholder Engagement after the Attempted Closure and Resurrection of Sweet Briar College
Stacey Sickels Locke
University of Maryland University College
March 4, 2016
Stacey Sickels Locke is a masters student at the University of Maryland, University College; Senior Director of Development, College of Sciences, University of Maryland College Park.
Stacey Sickels Locke is a graduate of Sweet Briar College and served on the Major Gift Task Force for Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., one of the parties funding lawsuits to save the College. She has a blog, www.beingunlocked.com, where she documented the attempted closure and stakeholder efforts to save the College. She authored several of the sources used in this paper which appeared in the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education Currents magazine and her blog.
Higher education is in crisis. In March, 2015, the President and Board of Sweet Briar College, whose symbol is a rose, attempted to close the 100-year-old institution in rural Virginia. Stakeholders revolted, filed suits and ultimately control of the College was handed to a new board. The circumstances faced by Sweet Briar are not unique and point to trends in higher education. The suits filed and the saving of Sweet Briar provide examples of engaged stakeholders fighting for their rights. This paper examines each stakeholder’s role in the attempted closure and examples from other institutions practicing shared governance. Shared governance can be a path through crisis. References provide trend data on higher education and examples of shared governance at other institutions. Sources also provide glimpses into the trends of higher education faced by governing boards and stakeholders, including where there are breakdowns in communication and governance. Reference sources highlight stakeholder groups including student, faculty, staff (administrators and support), alumni and the wider community. Sweet Briar College must reinvent itself and its governance. Lessons learned from other institutions can be considered for the future. The collective voices represented in shared governance yields more roses than briars.
Keywords: Sweet Briar College, stakeholders, shared governance, students, faculty, staff, exempt staff, non-exempt staff, alumni, alumnae, minority, president, board.
Shared Governance: Roses Emerge from the Briars
Stakeholder Engagement after the Attempted Closure and Resurrection of Sweet Briar College
Lincoln (1857) at the eulogy for the 10th president, Zachary Taylor said, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses”. This quote is an apt framework to understand the thorny attempted closure and resulting lawsuits against Sweet Briar College’s former leadership. The roses, in this case, are the engaged stakeholders that have emerged: Students, faculty, staff, alumnae and the community. Shared governance can be a thorny issue as it involves sharing and yielding power and giving each stakeholder group independence from one another. With cultivation and careful pruning of the governance structure, more roses can bloom in perpetuity in the form of engaged stakeholders. Sweet Briar can be an example to other similar institutions facing challenges.
On March 3, 2015, the President and Board of Directors of Sweet Briar College announced the College would cease operations at the end of the academic year. The decision was made in secret, off campus, and deliberately excluded every member of the community. The news stunned the community of Sweet Briar College including current students, faculty, staff, and alumnae stakeholders. The local community of Amherst, Virginia expressed shock given the shared contracts they had with the college and the economic impact the closure would have on the region. The higher education community buzzed with news stories for months wondering what this closure could mean for other institutions like Sweet Briar. National news media covered the story of the fight to save the college as well as the entrenched board which refused to budge from its position.
Legal suits were filed to halt the closure by students, faculty, alumnae and the Commonwealth of Virginia. These lawsuits raised the voices of stakeholders to local courts and, through news media, to the world. Ultimately, all parties to the lawsuits reached a mediated settlement brokered by the Attorney General for the State of Virginia. Each party was able to put forward nominations for a new board of Sweet Briar College which “got back the keys” in July 2015. Sweet Briar College never closed. Students, faculty, staff and alumnae returned to the college in the fall of 2015 determined to usher the college into “perpetuity” -- the perpetuity the founder of the College, Indiana Fletcher Williams, had in mind when she created the college with a trust over 100 years ago.
The iron-clad will of Indiana Fletcher Williams has withstood the test of time. What seems to need an overhaul in order to usher in perpetuity is a governance model that engages all stakeholders: Students, faculty, staff, alumnae and the community. Pounds (2016) shares wisdom from the attorney instrumental in halting the college’s closure, E. Bowyer:
‘I don’t know how to accomplish it but I think that for this college, it’s essential that you have balanced representation’, (E. Bowyer) said, pointing to the way that the plaintiffs in the various legal challenges worked together in the legal fight over the future of the college. ‘We’ve got to have that common united front to get this college down the road’ (Bowyer cited by Pounds, 2016, para 10).
Shared governance is a path forward after crisis. Sweet Briar College is not alone. This breach of trust by the former leadership of Sweet Briar came in the midst of an eroding public trust nationwide. The Association of Governing Boards (2013) reported, “In a time of substantial challenges, as well as eroding public trust and support, higher education governance is not up to the task. Far too much time and talent, and too many resources are preoccupied with institutional advantage, the preservation of the status quo, internal disputes over governance roles and authority, and the advancement of political and individual agendas” (p. 20). The stakeholders engaged in the fight to save Sweet Briar College are all critical for shared governance at any institution.
Shared governance in academia is as old as our democracy. Research by Morphew (1999) describes the rocky start of shared governance from its inception at Harvard University where administrative practices and curriculum stagnation prompted faculty protests. Faculty were not a part of William and Mary governance until 30 years after its founding in 1693. Research by Burke (2010) shows that shared governance is based on democratic principles of shared decision making between a governing board, administration, faculty and staff. The American Association of University Professors (1996) advocates for shared governance in college and university decision making and embodies three important principles: 1) That academic decisions should be independent of short-term managerial and political considerations; 2) that professional staff and faculty are the most qualified to shape and implement curriculum, to select academic colleagues; and, 3) that the perspective of front-line personnel is imperative for all aspects of running a college including allocating scarce resources, ensuring student success, vetting and choosing administrators, and setting college-wide goals and priorities. In short, running a college should be a democratic and open process. Shared governance distributes an institution’s power and seeks meaningful input from all stakeholders (Burke, 2010). Research by Crellen (2010) goes further to show the importance of open, two-way dialogue and decision-making between faculty, the senate (if there is one), the administration and university trustees. Taylor (2013) notes that if stakeholders are not consulted, their natural tendency is greater allegiance to their academic discipline rather than the institution as a whole. This is also true for other stakeholders including students, staff, alumni and the broader community. An examination of these important stakeholders through the lens of the attempted closure and resurrection of Sweet Briar College shows the importance of a governance structure inclusive of all.
After the announced closure, the County of Amherst reacted strongly appealing for relief. Jackson (2015) reports on the impact, “Sweet Briar utilizes 28% of Amherst's sewage system and 22% of its water. The college also provides 350 jobs” (Kilgore cited by Jackson, 2015, para 8). In the case Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Sweet Briar Institute (2015), the County Attorney of Amherst, Virginia argued that donor funds could not be solicited for one purpose (for the operating the college) and used for another (to close the college). The case also asserted that the closing of the college was a violation of the trust that formed the college. Ultimately, the Virginia Supreme Court upheld the idea of the College being both a trust and a corporation and the ruling paved the way for mediation between the plaintiffs suing the college (Commonwealth of Virginia vs. Sweet Briar Institute, 2015). In short, without the County Attorney for Amherst, Virginia, Sweet Briar might not be open today.
“Town and Gown” is the term that captures the relationship between a local community and an academic institution. While there are symbiotic relationships, there are many examples of strain. In communities where students utilize off-campus housing, neighborhood relationships can be very stressful (particularly on the weekends). Kinkead (2012) highlighted twelve of the most strained town and gown relationships, but pointed out the dynamic isn’t new, “In fact, town and gown disputes date as far back as the Battle of St. Scholastica Day in 1355; A fight in a tavern lead to a two-day battle in which the townspeople began killing multiple scholars” (Kinkead, 2012, para 5). Fortunately for Amherst, Virginia, students live on a 3,000-acre campus and only visit the town to enjoy its restaurants, shops, and religious institutions. Faculty, staff, and alumnae live and run businesses in Amherst also tying the town to the college.
A path forward is suggested by the guide who navigated the legal path, the County Attorney of Amherst, Virginia (Pounds, 2016). The recommendations are based on lessons learned from reading the terms of the original trust, the governing documents of the former and current board, and navigating through the court system. Pounds (2016) highlights, “Bowyer also weighed in on an ongoing debate in the college community over policies of the school’s board of trustees, calling for board meetings to be opened to the public for the most part, and suggesting that the board should continue to value representation of various constituencies on the board” (Bowyer cited by Pounds, 2016, para 2). Bowyer suggests and offers to draft a resolution of the current board reaffirming a commitment to the founder’s will (Pounds, 2016). The board of the college has expressed an openness to shared governance in its new mission statement (Sweet Briar College, 2016). The chair of the board announced the board’s intention to be more inclusive of its stakeholders while navigating possible conflicts of interest (Pounds, 2016). The community surrounding any college needs to be strongly engaged in the life of institutions in informal and formal ways. The formal way in shared governance is to include a “seat” for community members on the governing board and even institutional senate if there is one. For Sweet Briar, involving the local community has even greater importance given the town’s role in saving the college.
The settlement reached by the parties to the various lawsuits against the Sweet Briar Institute allowed each party to nominate three individuals to the new Sweet Briar board. Brown et. al vs. Sweet Briar Institute (2015), “the faculty lawsuit”, represented over 50 faculty members. The settlement resulted in one of the first faculty members to serve on the board. Pounds (2016) shared this faculty member’s perspective, “I’m one voice and one opinion...I believe strongly that every constituency should be represented on this board, and I’ve made no secret about that” (Thom-Kaley cited by Pounds, 2016, para 13).
The faculty lawsuit, like the other lawsuits, was instrumental in the College remaining open. Faculty members questioned the former leadership’s claim of “financial exigency” and claimed a breach of contract for ending their jobs (Brown et. al vs. Sweet Briar Institute, 2015). Faculty were particularly harmed by the timing of the board’s closure in March as the hiring season for other colleges had already passed. The resiliency of the faculty inspired student and alumnae loyalty. Faculty are the heart of Sweet Briar College and of any academic institution.
Research by the American Association of University Professors (2014) highlights the critical role of academics, “The academic exists because the institution exists, and the institution exists because the academic exists, each being the other’s raison d’être” (Boyles cited by AAUP, 2014, p. 27). For this reason, the AAUP advocates for shared governance and an integration of the faculty perspective in all levels of governance. According to Rosenberg (2014), there should be a distinct faculty role on senior staffs of presidents pointing out that the Provost or Academic Dean is rarely seen as “one of them”. For practical purposes, the position would be the equivalent of chairing an important committee, since the individual must be seen as a member of the faculty not part of the administration (Rosenberg, 2014). However faculty are incorporated into shared governance, it is critical they have an official voice and perspective, especially at Sweet Briar College where so recently the faculty were blindsided by the former leadership.
When most organizations implement shared governance, faculty are at the heart of it. Faculty either have a seat on the board, their own senate, or both. Some institutions advocate for two of each stakeholder group, one focusing on the institutional perspective and the other on the unique stakeholder perspective. As Sweet Briar considers its new governance models, a cautionary note comes from higher education. Cuffee (2015) describes the impact of attempts to undo shared governance already in place at Medgar Evers in New York, “If CUNY permits the Pollard administration to continue violating University Bylaws or the College’s own ratified governance processes with impunity . . . Medgar Evers won’t be the only loser. Academic freedom is on the table, too. . . . If disemboweled at Medgar Evers College due to the University’s lack of enforcing shared governance under its reform scalpel of corporatized, higher education, then all CUNY colleges are at risk. Medgar is the test case for the oligarchic tendencies of this new “integrated” university” (Cuffee, 2015, section 5). The lawsuits that saved the College light the way for governance moving forward. Fortunately for faculty, the lawsuit set out three places on the board. How those seats are allocated will remain to be seen when new by-laws are adopted. Hopefully, faculty will be at the heart of any change. A group often left out of shared governance is staff.
One of the least represented groups in higher education governance, particularly in private institutions, is staff. Community colleges and some larger universities with representative shared governance do include staff. Some even include roles for non-exempt and exempt staff separately and also break down tenure and professional track (non-tenure) faculty. In the case Brown et al vs. Sweet Briar Institute (2015), non-tenured faculty and staff were included in the $40 million breach of contract suit. One board member of the college is both faculty and staff, which could be a model moving forward (Pounds, 2016)..
The Association of Governing Boards (2013) advocates for more voices in governance beyond faculty. In many institutions, only tenured track faculty can participate in shared governance despite only making up 25% of faculty in America (AGB, 2013). Tensions can result when the majority do not have a voice. The AGB points out the perspective of those left out, “Shared governance also remains inaccessible to growing numbers of academic and co-curricular support professionals, whose contributions to the academic mission (for example, student and financial aid advising, career counseling, technology support) are crucial for student success” (AGB, 2013, p. 11). Research by Nadler (2013) raises the important role of staff in addition to faculty given their role beyond academics. In a small community like Sweet Briar College where faculty and staff live and work side-by-side, there is even more incentive to provide a representative form of governance inclusive of all levels of staff from hourly to professional.
A growing trend in higher education is looking outside of academia for leaders and board members. Many fear this “corporatization” of higher education, particularly faculty. Professional staff do provide important functions in colleges. While outside experience may or may not prepare people to be effective academic administrators, shared governance can provide invaluable channels of communication boosting student, faculty and community confidence in administrators (Rosenberg, 2014). There are other benefits of shared governance including respecting diversity. Research by Clark (2003) finds that through closer communication, a community can find common ground as well as discovering inadvertent stereotypes. This is particularly true for low-level, hourly employees who experience discrimination and misunderstanding by faculty, staff and students in the majority group (Clark, 2003).
Rosenberg (2014) points out that there is a current system of sharing through division rather than collaboration which leads to a lack of understanding of how colleges run their finances, student services, and other core functions. Students, faculty, and staff who understand how an institution functions are better members of the community. Shared governance inclusive of staff can result in a stronger institution.
In Campbell et al vs. Sweet Briar Institute (2015), “The student and alumnae lawsuit”, the student and alumnae made strong points to the courts of Virginia and public opinion. Students attending Sweet Briar (and their families) are accepted through their graduation year, provided their performance meets academic standards. Students argued that closing the college was a breach of their enrollment contracts. Without students, there would be no college or University. It is surprising that students rarely have a role in academic governance.
Research by Resnick (2016) captures the current state of students in higher education governance, “For their part, students have no formal role in governance on most campuses, although they may serve as representatives to trustee committees and ex officio without a vote on boards of trustees, as well as participate fully in campus committees and planning processes” (Resnick, 2016, para 7). Student protests on campuses across the country show an increasing strength in voice influencing areas previously only controlled by faculty or administrators (Resnick, 2016). For example, students have called for the removal of faculty, administrators, programs, and other change. Another example of the growing strength of students and their families has to do with the negotiation over college tuition. Students and families are influencing before they even set foot on campus.
There are examples of shared governance such as at the University of Maryland where the University Senate includes undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate students in all aspects of college governance and policy making. The Association of Governing Boards (2016) finds, “A recent AGB study shows that 21 percent of independent institution boards now include at least one student member, and more than 70 percent of public institution boards include one or more students” (AGB, 2016, section one). A governance model including students provides continuity between the student experience in the classroom and in the community. As Sweet Briar College considers governance models moving forward, engaging students -- and their families -- could be an insurance policy for the future. The student suit joining together with alumnae was a key factor in saving the college. These voices are important to governance.
Students, faculty and the Commonwealth of Virginia, represented by the Amherst County Attorney, all had standing to file suit to stop Sweet Briar College from closing. Alumnae did not have the strongest standing among the stakeholders. In Campbell et. al vs. the Sweet Briar Institute (2015), students and alumnae argued a breach of contract. Alumnae argued that part of that contract continues into the future for alumnae enjoying the benefits of their degree. The Campbell et. al vs the Sweet Briar Institute (2015) suit gained the strongest relief from the courts with a temporary injunction. Alumnae did fight to save the value of their diplomas. Alumnae donated over $30 million for legal expenses and costs associated with keeping the college open. There is no question that Sweet Briar College would not have survived the attempted closure without the outpouring of generosity from alumnae.
While the fight raged on between March and July of 2015, the former Alumnae Association of Sweet Briar remained silent. The then President was also a member of the former Sweet Briar College board. The association issued statements that they “grieved” the loss of the college, but did nothing to express a contrary action. This infuriated alumnae who felt they should have a distinct voice. Locke (2015) expressed the feeling of many alumnae:
I understand the STAFF are employees of the College, but the Alumnae Board are dedicated volunteers. Shouldn’t the Alumnae Board have some leadership and messaging regarding the closure? The absence of any statement is extremely disappointing. An Alumnae Association Board should – even if it does not agree with all stakeholders — listen and respond to the feelings of their stakeholders. I have heard that the Alumnae Association Board has been told they cannot speak by the College’s legal counsel. Surely this cannot be true (Locke, 2015, para 3).
In the late 1980s, the independent alumnae association of Sweet Briar became officially part of the college. Prior to that time, their funds were held separately and even employees were hired and maintained from those funds. When the alumnae fought to stop the closure of Sweet Briar College, they created an independent 501(C)3 organization, Saving Sweet Briar, Inc., to channel support and fund the legal activity.
There are examples across the country of alumnae asserting their rights. Carmody (1988) coined three different types of alumni associations: Independent, departmental, and a hybrid model where some combination of the staff are institutional employees, but the board is independent. Georgetown University has a long tradition of alumni maintaining independence and the alumni association files suit about every 20 years (Carmody, 1988). Institutions surviving crisis often establish independent alumni associations. Mt. Holyoke College, a women's college in Massachusetts, maintains an independent alumnae association. The independence originated as women were not allowed to serve as Trustees. It continued to serve all alumnae equally regardless of the ability to give and to provide a system of checks and balances (Mt. Holyoke, 2016). There are many examples of alumni associations surviving colleges that later closed or where the college’s mission and vision changed so much that alumni no longer felt connected.
Sweet Briar College has a rebranded Alumnae Alliance focused on channeling alumnae giving and volunteerism in directions that support the College. These efforts are particularly important given the numbers of alumnae who wish to engage. Moving forward, some graduates would like to see independence revisited. Mt. Holyoke College (2016) shares this perspective in their mission statement, “Alumnae are able to speak freely on matters of concern and are valued regardless of their ability to contribute financially. In addition, traditions are treasured as the College makes necessary changes” (Mount Holyoke, 2016, section 7). Mount Holyoke also understands that alumnae have unique needs outside of serving the institution. A combination of an independent alumnae perspective included in shared governance could encourage support of all kinds. Alumnae were and are critical for Sweet Briar College, but there is one stakeholder voice that speaks louder than them all.
Indiana Fletcher Williams established Sweet Briar College over 100 years ago in her last will and testament. Her will sets out a living trust establishing the college and sustains a living memorial to her daughter, Daisy. At Sweet Briar College, this voice of the founder is an important stakeholder voice. The County Attorney Bowyer (2016), who argued in the Virginia courts says, “The person we really have to thank for the saving of Sweet Briar College is Indiana Fletcher Williams,” (Bowyer cited by Pounds, 2016). The former board argued it was a corporation that could cease operations. The Virginia Supreme Court upheld that the College could be both a living trust and a corporation. One way for Sweet Briar to express its commitment to the founder’s intent is to consider the founder as one of its stakeholders, perhaps its most important stakeholder. Bowyer (2016) appeals for the college governance to adopt a resolution to reaffirm its role as a living trust as a formal way of strengthening the intent of the founder (Pounds, 2016).
According to Resnick (2016), a noted higher education expert, shared governance is a protection in turbulent times, “Today, when institutions are confronting economic pressures, changing demographics and growing public skepticism about whether higher education is worth its cost, collaboration among the faculty, administration, and board is more essential than ever” (para 1). The success of an institution is dependent on student enrollment, an effective educational program, strong student services, a well-functioning physical plant and a positive climate. All of these success indicators can be strengthened through stakeholder engagement. When institutions face challenges such as modifying their missions, cutting programs or reallocating precious funding streams, the decisions are more likely embraced when all impacted have grappled with them (Resnick, 2016). In addition to grappling with issues, perspective is increased when faculty and staff are consulted. Whereas governing boards often have term limits, tenured faculty, and long-time staff members do not. These long-term perspectives can provide critical input and answers when a crisis hits that the board may not see on its own (Resnick, 2016). Fiduciary responsibility is deeply intertwined with each stakeholder group operating as strongly as possible in support of the institution.
Shared governance creates a climate of trust. Campuses need to be places where all in the community may ask questions and engage in healthy debate, without fear of retaliation or silencing (Resnick, 2016). Without shared governance and open discussion, “group think” can emerge causing leadership groups to become more and more insular. Resnick (2016) also cautions against an “us” vs. “them” attitude which demonizes faculty, students, and alumni resulting from closed discussions and lack of shared governance. According to Kiley (2013), there has been a national shift over the past 50 years towards a more open governance structure; however, some institutions maintain their former by-laws without much change. It is no longer acceptable for Trustee dealings to be “hidden and secretive” (Kiley, 2013). With openness, the trustees are seen as more human, visible, and accountable. Trust is also forged through training. Rosenberg (2014) urges seminars on financial operations, fundraising, and admissions to all stakeholder groups. Training will not eliminate all disagreement, but over time can build trust and understanding (Rosenberg, 2014).
Shared governance has financial benefits. In research by Kadlec (2015), stakeholder engagement provided several benefits including shifting of attitudes, openness to change, and stronger institutional decision making. When determining how to engage stakeholders, it is important to engage all who will be impacted by policies (Kadlec, 2015). This is particularly important when a community faces financial challenges or the need to raise funds. Robust engagement of alumni is critical to channel financial support as an engaged alumnus/a is more likely to give.
Shared governance is not easy. For some, shared governance is seen as a “shared pain” (Resnick, 2016). Some see it as something to be avoided or worked around instead of embraced. Examples abound of collapses in governance including the University of Virginia, the University of Texas at Austin, Duke University, Emory University, and Sweet Briar College. In these institutions, the faculty were cut out of important decisions and the faculty successfully revolted and reversed actions from closure to presidential removal to program change. The consequences of excluding faculty and staff in key decisions is costly to both financial health and reputation.
The “corporatization” of higher education is a strong factor impacting shared governance. More boards recruit business people, and higher education is filled with staff coming from outside of higher education. This can have positive impacts, but also negative consequences. Kelderman (2016) captures this growing trend of corporatization:
There is a bipartisan notion that education is in crisis, and that the people who are educators are at fault, and the ones who know nothing about education are the ones to fix it. The model of governance is increasingly a top-down, corporate-style CEO with dictatorial powers — a model that has shown itself to have disastrous consequences (Reichman cited by Kelderman, 2016, section two).
This top-down, corporate-style governance structure was in place at Sweet Briar College with a total disconnect from all stakeholders. The strongest institutions model the democracy in which we live as their foundation for embracing stakeholders in all matters of institutional governance (Association of Governing Boards, 2013).
At Sweet Briar College, all efforts for the 2015-2016 academic year are on enrollment and fundraising. All structures must be aligned to accomplish these goals critical to the college’s continued existence. Shared governance is being discussed both informally through constituency group meetings as well as at the board table. As this paper shows, shared governance can be a path forward. Incorporating the voices and perspectives of students, faculty, staff, alumnae, the community, and the founder may provide the solutions for the short and long term for Sweet Briar. One of the Sweet Briar board’s five strategic goals affirms the role of stakeholders:
Demonstrate a renewed commitment to the transparency and inclusion due Sweet Briar’s stakeholders through proactive outreach to all constituencies invested in the College’s continuing success (Sweet Briar College, 2016, section two).
While there may be some thorns along the way, more roses are likely to bloom with shared cultivation -- and governance -- of the Sweet Briar stakeholders.
Overlooking the 3,000 acre Sweet Briar College campus is Monument Hill. Beyond establishing Sweet Briar College, Indiana Fletcher Williams’ trust stipulated that the college was to maintain the family cemetery at the top of Monument Hill. Each year, the community marches to the hill led by a bagpiper and lays daisies and roses on the stone markers. In 2015, the new leadership unveiled a plaque on the back of the monument to Daisy Williams, in whose memory the college is meant to be a living memorial. These words etched in granite in all capital letters speak to all stakeholders of the college today, but one can imagine that Indiana Williams’ voice comes through as well:
WE KEPT THE FAITH
ROSES STILL BLOOM
JULY 2, 2015
The collective voices of stakeholders in shared governance yields more roses than briars.
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