Diverse Conversations: Being Transparent

Many higher education professionals often complain that the higher ups at their institutions are not transparent in their dealings. This can have a negative impact on faculty morale and thus a devastating effect on the functioning of an institution. To talk about how institutions can actually ensure transparency and counteract the problem of lacking transparency, I recently sat down with Laurie M. Joyner, president of Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio.

Transparency is, of course, a vital component of just about any professional enterprise, but it is particularly important in higher education for maintaining positive relationships within the organization structure – between higher education and those that I am referring to here as “the higher ups”, which include administrators and so forth. Why do you think transparency is so important in this context?

Transparency in communication and action builds trust, which is essential to effective shared governance. The strategic challenges facing higher education today, including remaining mission-driven within the context of a sustainable financial model, touch upon deeply held beliefs about institutional direction. Our academic values and tradition recognize that such critical decisions are best informed by the perspectives of faculty, staff, students, alumni and board members. A lack of transparency with any constituent group compromises our ability to form effective partnerships necessary for creating a shared vision required to move our institutional agenda forward.

Q: In your experience, what are some of the most common problems when transparency is not maintained? What does that look like in terms of organizational function and relationships between higher education professionals and the administrators, the leaders?

A: The most common problem is that a perception of mistrust is likely to develop making it more difficult to align priorities and efforts designed to strengthen the institution. When priorities are not aligned between faculty, administrators, and the governing board, organizational functioning may be negatively impacted. This often appears as tensions surrounding the rights and responsibilities of various groups for certain types of decisions. The challenge, of course, is that more attention and energy can become focused on who has prime responsibility for what decisions versus figuring out how to collaborate in a collegial manner to address the most pressing issues facing the institution. In some cases, relationships become strained, decision making can stall, and ultimately, organizational effectiveness is compromised.

It’s also important to note that while transparency is a healthy aspect of organizational culture, it is not necessarily sufficient for effective governance. Effective governance requires ongoing education regarding the strategic issues impacting the organization (e.g., shifting demographics, improving educational outcomes, exploiting competitive strengths, etc.) Insisting on transparency regarding key institutional metrics can build support for difficult decisions, facilitate continuous improvement, and meet the growing demand for quantitative outcome data.

Q: Drawing from these first two questions, what would you say are the most important areas for maintaining transparency; where is it particularly important in higher education institutions?

A: A commitment to transparency should be pervasive for the benefit of all internal and external stakeholders. This transparency can be exceedingly helpful in facilitating data-driven decisions, supporting continuous improvement, and fostering a culture of accountability regarding institutional performance at all levels. From a faculty perspective, transparency is of special importance in the following areas: institutional planning and budgeting; curricular requirements; academic integrity; academic freedom; and the selection, evaluation and promotion of faculty colleagues.

In my experience, there are two areas that present special challenges to administrative leaders who value transparency. These areas relate to personnel and legal issues where one is not at liberty to discuss the circumstances surrounding particular decisions. It is frustrating to face community resistance that is not based on complete information and not be in a position to respond.

Q: What are the key benefits for maintaining transparency in higher education, from an administrative and leadership standpoint?

A: The main benefit is that it builds a culture of open communication and trust, both of which are necessary to create a sense of partnership for effectively accomplishing the important work of the institution. Given the challenges facing higher education today, it is critical to do everything possible to align our collective efforts around shared priorities as we work toward achieving our common purpose.

An additional benefit of transparency is that it also supports the development of increasingly refined performance metrics that are useful in supporting a culture of continuous improvement across the organization while also responding to calls for greater accountability for student and institutional outcomes.

Q: How, then, do you go about establishing and ultimately maintaining transparency in higher education institutions?

A: I think this is best accomplished by respecting the systems of shared governance involving the Board, the President and senior administrators, and the faculty. In many cases, this is easier said than done because different constituent groups have varying levels of understanding as it relates to effective governance practices (e.g., who has more or less responsibility and authority for making certain types of decisions). Given this, I believe ongoing professional development is required at every level of the organization to ensure that all key constituent groups are being supported as they adopt best practices to enhance shared governance.

A deep commitment to transparency also supports continuous improvement across the organization and contributes to a culture of assessment and accountability. Once these elements are structured into organizational policies and practices, they strengthen and reinforce one another, ultimately improving shared governance and educational quality.

Q: At Wittenberg University, transparency is something that you emphasize at these various levels. Beyond these basic methods and strategies for establishing and maintaining transparency, what strategies have you found to be most effective for maintaining transparency?

A: We have worked hard to try to educate our campus on some of the core challenges facing Wittenberg. This is a critical point. There must be general agreement on the challenges if there is any chance of aligning the efforts of the campus community and Board. We have also worked very hard to communicate early and often using a range of strategies. For example, I host community dialogue sessions to discuss areas of concern and to respond to any community questions. I also distribute Board agendas to the faculty, report the actions taken at each Board meeting to all faculty and staff, and distribute an electronic newsletter to faculty, staff, and retirees every two weeks. I also provide similar monthly updates to Board and Emeriti Board members. In addition, we are working to develop more refined outcome metrics to assess progress toward key institutional goals. The intent is to eventually have all these metrics readily available to anyone interested in tracking institutional performance over time.

Q: In your experience, when there are transparency issues and they are proving problematic, how have you proceeded to address the issues and restore transparency?

A: In my experience, proceeding in an honest, open and authentic way is always the preferred approach with all constituencies. Further, ensuring that all elements of the governance system are working as effectively as possible and then routinely consulting with appropriate groups is essential. If there are not effective structures or systems in place, then creating meaningful structures to bring various groups together to focus on important issues can help foster understanding, enhance transparency, increase collaboration, and improve results.

Q: Inevitably there are some instances in which administrators inherit transparency issues and that’s what I’d like to focus on in this question. What advice would you give to a higher education administrator who is facing problems with transparency? What advice would you give in terms of establishing transparency and, if you like, dealing with the fallout of the initial transparency issue?

A: Communicating about the issues in a forthright manner and establishing structures to help address difficult questions are important. I also think recognizing that shared governance is challenging and requires ongoing attention is critical. At Wittenberg, we have initiated an effort to strengthen Board governance with support from the Association of Governing Boards (AGB). From my perspective, there are few issues more strategic than ensuring that our governing Board understands its rights and responsibilities as it relates to our institution.

My hope is to initiate a similar process internally to enhance the working relationships between our faculty committees, senior administrators, and Board. Through these parallel efforts to strengthen governance, I believe Wittenberg will be better served because our systems will become more closely aligned as we work toward shared priorities within the context of clearer expectations regarding our respective responsibilities. Ultimately, I believe this work will result in greater satisfaction for our faculty leaders, administrators, and Board members and will also foster improved institutional outcomes.

Thank you for your time, President Joyner. This concludes our interview.

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