CFA Commentary on Shared Governance

This commentary by our President, Jim Barrett outlines our views on a vital topic for all faculty, shared governance. We welcome feedback.

The Importance of Shared Governance and Some of Its Limits

by Jim Barrett, President, Campus Faculty Association

From its origins, the Campus Faculty Association (CFA) has strongly supported our system of shared governance.  We support it in principle, as in our statement of purpose.  More importantly, we have supported it in practice, as in the work of dozens of CFA members as senators and on a host of senate committees, including the Senate Executive Committee and the University Senates Conference (USC), the elected body over the university’s three campus senates. Indeed, we feel certain that CFA members have made the senate and other representative bodies stronger and more vital.

For these and other reasons, we also serve on our department and college executive committees and on a variety of other bodies throughout the university.

Shared governance affords faculty the opportunity to discuss issues of concern to them and to other campus citizens.  Through their elected representatives, individual faculty can play a role in the governance of one of the world’s great universities.  At their best, these institutions can effect important change on campus.

But the system of shared governance has limitations and it is important for all concerned to recognize these. Collective bargaining could help faculty to address some of these limitations.

First, faculty representation at the highest reaches of the university remains limited. For example, though students on each of the campuses do have formal representation on the Board of Trustees, faculty do not. CFA has pushed in the senate, on the USC, and in the state legislature for such representation, a provision that applies at a number of large institutions around the country.


Second, a broad range of important issues are beyond the province of the senate.  This limit in itself would justify the effort to achieve collective bargaining in order to guard salaries, pensions, health insurance, and other benefits that are now clearly in jeopardy. Through its connections with the state-wide labor movement, the union has vigorously defended pensions and health-care benefits. Collective bargaining could provide real power for faculty in guarding our interests.

Finally, most senate recommendations are considered advisory. The university administration holds ultimate power. In some cases, the senate as a whole has not even been consulted on important initiatives. A recent example is the decision to join Coursera, the private on-line education project. This is a bold initiative that might well work to the university’s and the public’s advantage, but Chancellor Wise reached this major decision regarding course delivery without ever discussing it in the senate. Too often, the administration has simply side-stepped the senate, even on vital decisions. As a corporate style of decision-making continues to develop, we can expect more of this.


Administrative influence does not diminish the importance of the senate and other shared governance bodies, but it does suggest their limits. Unionization could enhance the faculty’s role in shared governance by contractually guaranteeing a more substantial role for the senate.


CFA will continue to support and strengthen the senate, even as we work to represent faculty on salaries, benefits, and other issues beyond the senate’s reach.  We urge all faculty to support us in both endeavors. To join the movement, email to!







14 responses to “CFA Commentary on Shared Governance

  1. As a senator and a CFA member, I strongly second Jim’s points. The official faculty voice at UIUC is the Academic Senate, but if the administration decides to by-pass the Senate, there is currently little we can do about it. On many other campuses, unions have used their contracts to give their senate’s real “teeth.” We can do the same here!!

  2. I am ashamed at you Jim. You KNOW this is distortion of the facts. The Chancellor did consult with the SEC, which is empowered to act for the Senate in the summer. At the first meeting of the Senate the SEC reported to the full Senate the decision and the reasons for it.

    There was NO intention to circumvent shared governance and you know that. All this was explained in detail in the Senate meeting.

    If you are not happy with SEC acting for the Senate, your complaint is with the SEC, not the Chancellor. A faculty task force reviewed the Coursera proposal and made a recommendation. All of it — ALL — was in accordance with the rules. You should take this lie off your web site.

    Nick Burbules

  3. For heaven’s sake, Nick–you know perfectly well this whole process was not in accordance with the senate by-laws, which do NOT say that proposals should be reviewed by a “faculty task force” (appointed by whom?)–but that they should be reviewed by the duly-elected senate. The SEC is not authorized to act on its own, even during the summer. The by-laws specifically stipulate consultation with all senators on campus during the summer, and your committee failed to fulfill that obligation.

  4. As I said, Megan, if you have a complaint about this, it is with the SEC. The faculty task force was appointed by the SEC, as you know. It wrote an analysis of the Coursera proposal for the SEC, which reviewed the report and made a recommendation to the Chancellor. She would not have gone forward without such a recommendation and she said so. Jim’s version of events, and yours here, are dishonest and misleading. Personally, I wish we had sent out an email on the senate listserv telling senators what we were doing, and why. But there is no doubt that the Statutes do give the SEC this authority, as you also know.

    I have taken no public position on CFA or its attempts at organizing. But I do not respect people who bend the truth to fit a narrative of overreaching administrators and dark conspiracies to bypass faculty governance when that is NOT WHAT HAPPENED.

    I repeat again: please revise this posting or remove it from your web site.

  5. I am confused by Nick Burbules’ comments. The statement to which he objects seems obviously true: the decision was made without any discussion in the Senate. Perhaps, as a friend notes, the statement could be augmented to read: “…without ever discussing it in the Senate as a whole–bringing it instead as an urgent matter over the summer to the Senate Executive Committee, which signed off without fulfilling its own by-laws’ stipulation that it “seek the advice of those Senators present on campus” before taking such an ’emergency action.'” But the point is not to say that someone has done something wrong–that is water under the bridge–the real point is that we can increase shared governance on this campus, involve faculty in important decisions, and open up doors that, when they have been kept closed, have led to some bad decisions. I don’t see any “overreaching administrators and dark conspiracies.” I see advocacy for shared governance. I encourage the Chair of the Senate Executive Committee to embrace this call for greater shared government governance on campus. Talking to the faculty should entail a real consultation of the faculty, not a select few. I value the Senate and thank the CFA for insisting on its importance in university life.

  6. Colleagues will find the Senate bylaws on the Senate website at

    Part D, section e, reads as follows (with emphasis added):
    “(e) During the summer months, the Senate Executive Committee is authorized to act for and on behalf of the Senate on urgent matters that require immediate attention, WITH THE STIPULATION THAT, BEFORE TAKING ANY SUCH ACTION, THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE SHALL SEEK THE ADVICE OF THOSE SENATORS PRESENT ON CAMPUS. Any such emergency action taken by the Executive Committee shall be reported to the Senate at the first regular meeting of the Senate following such emergency action.

  7. Thanks to Megan for providing readers of this discussion with the relevant passage from the Senate Bylaws. All those who were present at the Oct. 8 meeting of the Senate know that Megan’s complaint was aired openly, discussed thoroughly (even heatedly), and–I thought–resolved: SEC Chair Matt Wheeler explicitly apologized for not having used the Senate listserv for this purpose; and longtime senator, parliamentarian, and process guru George Friedman expressed his satisfaction with the SEC’s compliance with the spirit of the Bylaws in its appointment of a task force to consider the question in depth and to make a recommendation to SEC. (That report, which was the basis of the detailed oral report that was made by SEC to the Senate at the first meeting of the academic year, has been posted on the Senate website since just after the Sept. Senate meeting:

    The point is that this debate had nothing to do with the Chancellor’s record of consultation, which, like that of former Chancellor Easter, features NO instances of sidestepping the Senate on decisions related to our educational mission. If you missed the September Senate meeting where the consultation process regarding Coursera was explained in detail, the video is available on the Senate website.

    It is a matter of record that the Chancellor postponed her decision about Coursera until after she had heard back from SEC–the only Senate body that was available to her for consultation during the summer months. Jim’s essay expresses no dissatisfaction with the conduct of the SEC or with the Senate; on the contrary, it overtly supports the Senate.
    The paragraph of this essay that erroneously refers to the “administration side-stepping” Senate consultation, and that offers the Coursera decision as an example of this alleged circumvention of the processes the Senate will always defend, is inconsistent both with the essay’s internal logic, and with the principles of shared governance unanimously endorsed by the Senate on Monday. I suggest that it be removed.

  8. Nick,

    I am sorry to have disappointed you, but I can assure you that I bear no shame. I said the chancellor did not discuss the Coursera initiative in the senate and, in fact, she did not — until after the decision had been made. The bylaws do indeed authorize the SEC during the summer months “to act for and on behalf of the Senate on urgent matters that require immediate attention,” but they do so “with the stipulation that, before taking any such action, the Executive Committee shall seek the advice of those senators present on campus.” As you know, this did not happen. I know a task force was set up (and I believe there were reservations expressed in those discussions on this huge initiative), but the rest of the senate was never consulted and the report to the senate at its first meeting therefore dealt with an accomplished fact.

    You are correct that I blame the chancellor and not the senate leadership for that. You blame the SEC for any lapses, while I think that the chancellor was ultimately responsible. I find myself in the strange position of defending the SEC against the claims of one of its leaders. In fact, I believe the SEC did a good job of considering the Coursera proposal, given the time constraints under which it was forced to work. For this reason, I raised no objection in the senate about the SEC’s actions. I believe that the chancellor placed the SEC in a very difficult situation. That is likely one reason that the SEC neglected to consult senators over the summer while all of this was happening. It sounds like the chancellor’s timetable meant that they had their hands full. I appreciate your defense of the chancellor’s actions, but she can and has spoken for herself. I just disagree with how she went about this.

    It would be good to think that what happened over the summer with Coursera was an aberration, but the chancellor held this up as a model at her recent town hall meeting when she urged that we become more “agile” and “nimble” in our decision making. If we do continue to operate in this way, then it will tend to reduce the role of the senate. If future decisions are to be made in a similar manner, the approach cuts a large number of faculty representatives out of the equation. I vote against that sort of agility and nimbleness – and not just due to my advanced age.

  9. Although feelings have obviously been hurt, I am glad we are having this discussion. I have noticed an administrative preference for dealing with the SEC IN PLACE OF dealing with the entire Senate. I have seen this several times, and also on the University Senate Conference, where the President would rather deal with the USC instead of wider consultation. It is obviously much easer for the campus or the university administration to deal with a small committee than to involve a large elected body. I think we should expect administrators to act this way. But the problem is that the SEC can easily fall into the trap of going along with this approach, especially when there are severe time constraints. It is up to the SEC to be vigilant and not agree to be pressed to comply without appropriate consultation. I think what Nick stated is correct. There was no INTENT to bypass the Senate, but the effect of what took place had that EFFECT. I accept and appreciate Matt Wheeler’s apology. I think we can all learn from this episode.

  10. I do think it is really unfortunate that another instance of preferring to deal with the SEC over a longer, admittedly slower and more cumbersome process of consultation with the full faculty through the full Senate has come to the fore — especially in such a major issue of academic importance as the Coursera agreement. This is a potentially epochal issue of educational policy, and deserved the fullest and most careful deliberation..

  11. Again, if facts matter, the Chancellor brought the issue to SEC because Matt Wheeler and I and others urged her to do so. SEC wasn’t forced into anything. It wasn’t her preference to deal with SEC instead of the full Senate. And she said repeatedly that if we said, No, Stop, or You’re going too fast, she would have dropped it.

    Moreover, nothing in the Coursera agreement is permanent or irreversible. If the Senate today wanted to take up the issue and decide that the Coursera decision was a mistake and we should sever our relationship with them, the Senate could do so. If your concern is with asserting the authority of the Senate, then take up that debate instead of second-guessing people who were ALL trying to do the right thing.

  12. The approval of Coursera, and more generally the interactions between three entities: the Chancellor, the Senate Executive Committee, and the Senate as a whole are important issues, which deserve to be discussed in a thoughtful and collegial manner. Unfortunately, that seems to be impossible, at least in the current atmosphere on this website. As the Senate Executive Committee pointed out, in its recent excellent statement on shared governance, “relationships matter.” “When participants do not show respect and collegiality, there can be no trust.” Do you think, Nick, that you might try to show a little more respect and collegiality for your CFA colleagues in the senate, who are trying very, very hard to support and strengthen the important work you are doing?

  13. I had resolved to stop posting on this topic, but this leaves me no choice. I am very interested in what you think “respect and collegiality” entail. Perceptions about who is being “uncollegial” to whom obviously depend on point of view. Apart from saying at the outset that I was ashamed with CFA posting false or misleading information on their web site — and perhaps that was tactless, I am sorry — everything else I have posted above was an attempt to provide accurate information to counteract the distortions I saw in your versions of events.

    I appreciate that your moderator has accepted these messages, you didn’t have to do that. But despite my efforts, and Joyce Tolliver’s efforts, to correct the record, the errors remain, and the various defenses posted have become increasingly inconsistent with themselves and with the facts. I thought we did have an honest, open, and COLLEGIAL exchange about these matters in the Senate. What frustrated me the most about the original posting was that it went forward as if none of the previous discussions, explanations, and apologies had occurred. That struck me as an act of bad faith, and it angered me.

    I have had a separate set of exchanges with Jim, and everyone knows me as someone who is always ready to engage and talk.

  14. Just as a side note to the whole discussion here, I thought I would add that Coursera founder Daphne Koller is coming to campus to participate in the Online Education Summit being held November 1. I recommend the event to anyone interested in considering how the Coursera initiative relates to the University’s overall mission and future. A link to the event registration form is:

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