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Changes to shared governance create greater efficiency and broaden participation

August 19, 2020

Shared governance at NIU enters the fall with a new structure that leaders expect to be more responsive, more nimble and better able to ensure that all voices get heard in campus decision-making.  

The changes were approved by both the Faculty Senate and University Council last spring and received final approval from the NIU Board of Trustees in June. 

Kendall Thu, president of the Faculty Senate

Upon becoming president of the Faculty Senate in July of 2019, Kendall Thu embarked on a benchmarking exercise to compare shared governance at NIU to other universities across the state. “That process revealed that our structure was very strange and out of step with best practices,” Thu said. 

Among his discoveries were that no other institution in the state had a body like the University Council and that the Faculty Senate at most schools had greater influence over academic matters. 

After analyzing other structures and speaking with counterparts across Illinois, Thu worked with Cathy Doederlein of the Supportive Professional Staff Council, Jeffry Royce from the Operating Staff Council and Ian Pearson from the Student Government Association to develop a new structure. Also instrumental in the process were Richard Siegesmund, who served on both the Faculty Senate and University Council, and Pat Erickson, the administrative assistant for University Council, who kept the project organized. 

The proposal they developed was designed with three primary goals: 

  • Empower the Faculty Senate to oversee matters of academic policy.
  • Reconfigure University Council to provide more equitable representation.
  • Reduce the number of committees.

Addressing the first point required amending the university constitution. While that document stipulated that the Faculty Senate “predominated” in all policy decisions regarding the faculty personnel system, curriculum, admissions and academic standards, the bylaws of the University Council and Faculty Senate did not empower that body to prevail over such decisions. 

The constitution now clearly states that the Faculty Senate has the power to establish the educational and academic policies of the university. It also moves committees related to those responsibilities from the University Council to the Faculty Senate. 

Under the new structure, the University Council retains the power to amend the constitution, advise the president on the appointment of administrators, participate in the preparation of the administrative budget, participate in matters related to space utilization and aid in the development of nonacademic policies. 

The changes also reduced the size and composition of the University Council. Previously, that body had 63 voting members, most of whom were tenured faculty. The new 29-person body has a much broader representation from across campus, bringing to the table five students, five members of the Operating Staff Council and four members of the Supportive Professional Staff Council. Also included for the first time are instructors (two seats) and clinical faculty (one seat).

The remaining seats are filled by the university president, the chief financial officer, the provost and a representative selected from the deans of the colleges. The body will be chaired by the president of the Faculty Senate.   

The Faculty Senate, which used to be reserved almost exclusively for tenured or tenure-track faculty, also got an overhaul. The body now has 70 voting members and is comprised of 44 tenured or tenure-track faculty, 11 students, two representatives each from the SPS Council and the Operating Staff Council, 10 instructors and one clinical faculty. 

The broader representation allows more voices to be heard, said Thu, who is particularly pleased to see the addition of instructors to the governing bodies. “Instructors teach about 25% of our classes, so they deserve a voice on the Faculty Senate and University Council,” he said.  

The final step of the restructuring was to reduce the number of universitywide committees by about 10%. Some committees had not met in years, while others met sporadically. “A fully functioning committee should have a dozen members and meet four times a semester for two or three hours – that is a big commitment of time and money,” said Thu, pointing out that the high number of committees was a vestige of when the university was larger and the work could be distributed more equitably. 

The changes received strong support in a referendum of faculty last spring, and the NIU Board of Trustees approved the plan at its June 18 meeting. NIU President Lisa Freeman also endorsed the new alignment.

The changes should allow the university to make decisions more quickly, according to Thu. For instance, he said, the adoption of test-blind admissions policies likely could have been accomplished two or three months sooner under the new structure.  

“The changes to our shared governance structure create appropriately shared responsibility and cooperative action among the components of our academic institution, in keeping with time-honored principles of university governance endorsed by major higher education organizations including the American Association of University Professors, Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges and American Council on Education,” said President Freeman. “I support the new structure, and I am proud of the way that the change was considered and achieved. Our willingness to engage around these issues is proof that we live our Huskie values – that we employ inclusive decision-making processes and act in a manner that is transparent and accountable to stakeholders.”

Thu anticipates that the year ahead will be one of adjustment as everything gets implemented, but he is hopeful that by next spring the campus will fully embrace the changes. “I will consider it a success if a year from now people feel more ownership in shared government, if policies are passed more easily, and if the Faculty Senate feels empowered to make academic policy.”