What is the Role of University Staff in Shared Governance?

by Kiernan Mathews

staff engaged in tug of warI recently asked a forum of faculty affairs leaders about university governance beyond their boards and faculty. When we talk about “shared governance” in higher ed, what does that mean for staff? What influence do they have on the direction of the institution? 

The question has a special urgency this summer as faculty were afforded (or fought for) some flexibility in coming back to campus and getting work done during the pandemic. What voice, what power (if any) do staff have in the decisions being made right now to continue, or reinvent, the work of the university?

Scant Literature

The only recent, comprehensive title on the topic is an edited volume, Staff Governance and Institutional Policy Formation, (some excerpts here). Most other scholarship on staff governance in higher ed comes from the EU, where useful comparisons might be found.

Anyone interested in a deeper dive should look to the healthy body of analysis about staff engagement in governance--its upsides and downsides--in the scholarship on medical centers and hospitals. Nurses offer an interesting parallel to staff in terms of the power, although arguably the doctor-nurse relationship is more like professor-contingent faculty.

After hearing from facuty affairs officers about the seats of staff power at their institutions, a search of the HR literature for governance models could be fruitful.



What I learned from about 15 academic leaders, most at research universtiies,  is that typically, the Faculty Senate and Staff Senate/Council (or Councils at some institutions, for different types of staff) are separate. At one institution, however, there is staff representation on the faculty senate. ("Their input is sometimes given meaningful consideration."). At another, the presidents of the staff and faculty councils attend and present at each other's senate/council meetings. At some universities, staff and faculty councils, and sometimes student councils, each send representatives to a University Council or Senate. If the campus is part of a state system, the staff council may have representatives on a systemwide staff council.

The purview of staff councils varies widely. At one institution, the council "plans and/or coordinates special events, professional development opportunities, and service projects... [and] reviews issues and concerns regarding University and departmental procedures and practices that affect the work environment and University staff members ." Another's staff council focuses on employment conditions for staff, benefits, parking, and at times has discussions of climate for staff. At one university with a "robust" staff senate, they are meeting with the faculty and student senates regarding their Title IX sexual misconduct response policy and several key staff members are actively participating in the decisions related to Fall 2020 re-opening.

Combined senates like these "can influence the direction of the institution in direct meetings with the Provost and Chancellor." The president of each group (faculty senate and staff council) might meet monthly with the university president and the provost.

At several universities, new presidents and provosts are breathing new life into broadly inclusive governance models. One has been engaged early with staff to bring an important perspective to strategic directions moving forward. "The Provost," one faculty affairs leader shared, "has heard it loud and clear from all sectors that they would like to have decisions, even in this crisis period, done with them and not to them."

There are some exceptions to cultures of staff inclusion in governance. One university's formal shared governance practices do not include staff, although their Vice President for Human Resources has convened a council of staff leaders from across campus to get input on campus issues. Compared to the Faculty Senate, the staff group is unelected and has no formal role to propose resolutions or comment on issues. Another university has two staff advisory councils that are not considered formally to be engaged in shared governance--they meet monthly with the Associate Chancellor for HR--but they are seen as having "a role" in shared governance "in the broadest sense."


Is Flexibility Distributed Equally?

My sources believed that with the exception of housekeeping and grounds crews, most staff--so far--have been allowed the same or similar flexibilities as faculty. One vice provost mentioned that many student-facing staff roles will be reconceived as remote (i.e., meeting students via Zoom) in the fall.

Another vice provost admitted that faculty-staff power differentials might affect others' perceptions of who is really doing the influencing. When the current circumstances were described as "an evolving item with a decentralized decision-making process," it was clear that some areas of the university were enjoying greater flexibility than others.

One university is "radically changing the organization of [their] response to the crisis and the way forward," with a team including staff, students, and faculty governance representatives. "Not everyone likes all the decisions," the vice provost admitted, "but I believe [the staff] feel their voice is being heard more now." A key benefit of this multi-group stakeholder group: transparency and even, as one put it, "grace."


Napkin-sized Analysis

Many of my faculty affairs colleagues admitted to being unsure about what happens on their institutions' staff councils. They mentioned that, in the present moment, "people... on the academic side of the house... [are] not sure whether faculty have more of a say or determination as to direction at the moment than staff do." Their uncertainty reveals that gaps remain at many universities in the awareness (and understanding) between faculty affairs and staff affairs.

Even at places with "robust" staff governance, their strength is not enough to erase the power differential between groups, such that staff likely feel less influential in institutional decisions and more compelled to show up on campus when asked. One contact admitted that he does not believe his institution has done a good job of including the Staff Senate in discussions and information sharing as it relates to the pandemic and changing the way they work. He added, "I’m a bit surprised we haven’t had more complaints about it." Another admitted to "in-fighting" among the different senates, explaining that "the faculty senate sees itself as the senate that matters... and faculty hold a super majority of positions in the [university] Senate."

Nearly all responses expressly identified the faculty senate as yielding much more power than its staff-populated counterpart. Yet, by their remarks, they generally believe that their universities are stronger and smarter--especially with respect to pandemic response--when they incorporate the perspectives of faculty, staff, and students all at once.

Is staff engagement in shared governance a positive, negative, or unrelated indicator of an institution’s capacity to change? Positive, because more voices are at table; negative, because more voices can be a drag on the pace of change; or unrelated, because it is some other quality--not staff-faculty council integration--that better measures the institution's readiness for change?


Murray, John W, & Miller, Michael T. (2014). Staff Governance and Institutional Policy Formation. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing, Incorporated.

Examples of Staff Councils & Governance in Practice


Recommended for Additional Reading: