UK board considers changes to university’s shared governance model

Republished from Kentucky Lantern


LEXINGTON — The University of Kentucky Board of Trustees is likely to take another step Friday that would change the course of who has the final say over academic programs at the university. 

President Eli Capilouto is proposing updates to the university’s shared governance model, arguing they would streamline decision-making processes over academic programs. The proposal would transition UK’s University Senate into a faculty senate, and give a largely advisory role to faculty, staff and student representatives. 

Currently, the University Senate is made up of 94 members and “determines broad academic policies” for UK, which is Kentucky’s flagship institution. Some faculty members who oppose Capilouto’s ideas fear they would limit the primacy faculty have over academic decisions, such as admission standards for students. 

In a letter to faculty published Tuesday, Capilouto said the proposed changes to UK’s Governing Regulations (GR) would streamline rules and regulations, as well as give more authority to colleges and academic programs over curriculum review and implementation. 

The president is also proposing that the Board of Trustees have final say over baseline undergraduate admissions. Colleges and programs that want more selective criteria could continue college-based decisions. Graduate admissions would remain at the department, school and college levels. 

“Our current structure — and the guiding principles of our institution in the form of the GRs — don’t do that, now,” Capilouto said. “We need rules and structures for shared governance that help, not hinder, our progress.

“As difficult as change can be, it’s time to act.”

The proposal is on the agenda for Friday’s meeting for a first reading and vote by the board. The campus community may give feedback on the changes for another month after the board meeting. The trustees will give a final review at their June meeting. 

In a statement to the Kentucky Lantern, Capilouto said all of UK’s faculty, staff and students “have extremely valuable insights that can help us progress at a pace that keeps up with our changing world. However, not all faculty, staff and students across our expansive and evolving community feel heard, valued and respected — especially when it comes to the areas where they are the experts, the ones most affected, the implementers of our rules and regulations.

“Our students are why we are here; our staff make what we do possible. Our faculty’s innovation and creativity are what differentiate us from other places and help ensure our success in so many ways. But the structures and rules we have in place now are simply antithetical to the bedrock principles of shared governance,” he said. “We must do better, we must be better, and I believe we can achieve that together. Throughout my conversations with more than a thousand community members, it has become abundantly clear that all of us care deeply about this community and the way we accomplish our goals. I believe this is the right time to make a sustainable change. I believe we are the right community for this work.”

Faculty points to West Virginia University cuts

During its April 8 meeting, the University Senate voted in favor of a resolution saying the Senate “has no confidence that his proposed changes are in the best long-term interests of the University or the Commonwealth.”

Sharon Yam, a professor of social theory and member of the United Campus Workers’ faculty organizing team, compared UK’s proposed regulations to recent changes at West Virginia University. There, more than 20 programs were cut and faculty said they were excluded from the decision process. The administration cited budgetary concerns. 

If the proposed changes are adopted at UK, Yam said faculty members will no longer be part of the final say regarding departments and programs shutting down. 

“It’s not just that the faculties are at risk of losing a job, right? But now we’re seeing WVU, there are students who are in the majors that are about to be shut down — they’re also left in the lurch,” she said. 

However, Board of Trustees Chairman Britt Brockman said the WVU situation is not comparable to UK. He said UK has a healthy budget, including a multimillion-dollar hospital system. 

“You can’t compare the two situations and it’s a nice argument for those against the proposal, as long as nobody digs into the facts, but then the facts tend to negate that argument quickly,” he said. 

University Senate offers counter proposal

During a February board meeting, trustees were presented with a collection of practices from other universities, which included public universities in the Southeastern Conference (SEC), like UK, as well as other institutions with similar research and undergraduate needs. 

“I think that it’s really apples and apples when you do that. We were an outlier. … We were really one of one,” he said. “We were the only ones not behaving in the same manner as the others, and so that got the attention of the board.” 

UK’s shared governance regulations should be “brought in line with the current best practices across the nation,” Brockman added. He said the current rules were reviewed by the Association of Governing Boards, a national organization that focuses on governance in higher education. The association said the direction that UK is heading toward “would put us in better alignment with best practices across the nation,” he said. 

In its resolution, the University Senate also approved its own counter proposal on updating the shared governance regulations, which include expanding the University Senate “to have a greater role for all stakeholders within the university: elected members from faculty, staff, students, and administrators.” 

“We are open to discussion of moving some aspects of educational policy currently residing in the Senate to the colleges, but the President’s proposal would destroy university coherence and eliminate the key mechanisms that keep us informed on the broader university climate, community, and curricula,” the resolution says. 

Doug Michael, chair-elect of the University Senate, said Capilouto’s changes would only give the faculty senate advisory authority by reporting to the provost. 

“​​We would have no direct authority to do anything — only to suggest to him things which we think would be prudent — and there’s no way we would know about them, because there’s no required permission of any course proposals or program changes to the Faculty Senate as it would be redesigned,” Michael said. 

The current workflow for a course or program proposal includes faculty reviews before it receives approval from the Senate and the registrar. New programs are approved by the trustees. 

When beginning its review of UK’s governance, Brockman said the board saw issues like decisions regarding classes being pushed up to the University Senate, rather than staying at the college or department level. The board also wanted to clarify that it has ultimate authority over the university. 

“The Board of Trustees has ultimate authority over all acts at this university, but that doesn’t mean that the Board of Trustees wants to get down in the weeds about every course that is proposed and core curriculums,” Brockman said. “We have the right to do so. We have the right to have the ultimate authority on that act.” 

Michael, who is a law professor at UK, said he does believe that changes could be made to the current model, but Capilouto’s proposal is coming at “rocket-speed fast.” He added that he has not heard if a program has been delayed due to a Senate rule or committee. 

“I would love it to be more agile, as the president says,” he said. “I’m sure it could be improved, but to do what he’s done and throw it out root and branch is just not called for based on any evidence that I’ve seen, or that he’s seen to be perfectly honest.” 

Yam agreed that the proposed changes are happening at “such a rapid pace.” She added that faculty members across academic programs are concerned about the proposed changes. As things are now, faculty are included in the process as educators over their areas of expertise, including in admission standards. 

Staff and students offer support

The issue of UK’s governing regulations came to the board’s attention during a 2021 retreat, Brockman said. At the time, the board was reviewing the university’s strategic plan. Later, the board asked Capilouto for a proposal. 

“I would argue that the way that the president has handled it — with all of the meetings he’s had with all the constituent groups — has been a pretty open, transparent process,” Brockman said. “I’m very happy with the process, and I do not believe that this process has been in any way shape or form anything other than appropriate.”

The two other groups involved in shared governance — staff and faculty — have signaled support for Capilouto’s proposal. The Student Government Association recently approved a resolution saying its senators “​​have not been effectively heard in University Senate and Senate Council.” 

When asked about the resolution, Michael said he was surprised that the student representatives “think they have been ignored and disregarded.” Senate rules were written to provide protections for students, he added. 

“To be perfectly honest, I think if the students believe that this is providing them more voice, they’ve been co-opted to think that direct access is the same thing as effective access,” he said.

However, another government body on campus also agrees some voices are not heard in decision making now. On Wednesday, UK’s Staff Senate approved a resolution that said the UK’s current shared governance regulation “fails to establish the Staff Senate’s formal voice in decisions regarding the governance of the University.” 

The Staff Senate’s resolution also says the group “strongly supports the president’s commitment to equitable participation in shared governance and the importance of active staff involvement in these processes.” Additionally, the Staff Senate is supportive of a shared governance model for students, staff and faculty that facilitates “well-informed decision-making within their respective domains of primacy.” 

Brockman pointed to part of Capilouto’s proposal, which includes a President’s Council made up of 12 members who are students, faculty and staff members, would provide feedback to the president about various issues, like the university’s budget, priorities and more. He said the Association of Governing Boards said such a council was in line with governance at other universities. 

“Not only is it not unusual, it’s the most usual way to handle this,” he said. 

If Capilouto’s changes are implemented, Michael predicts that colleges will become siloed as they will not speak to each other, but to the provost. The faculty senate would not be as effective as the University Senate. UK’s president will also hear from administration officials who will contact faculty, students and staff, and not the groups directly. 

“There won’t be any controls,” Michael said. “There won’t be any other voices. He will hear what he wants. This is how businesses fail. The CEO gets told what he wants to hear.”

Michael said Friday he will tell the board he would like to see them return the proposal back to Capilouto and ask him to bring a different idea with the approval of existing faculty, staff and student organizations. 

“It’s nothing like shared governance, there’s nothing shared about it.”

Brockman said he thinks it’s likely the board will approve the proposal after a first reading Friday, but noted that it’s “not over ‘til the vote’s taken.” 

“I’ve seen absolutely nothing that would convince me, and I would think most of the board members, that this is anything other than appropriate,” he said. 

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