Whatever you thought the halls of power looked like at Virginia Tech, you perhaps weren’t envisioning a fluorescent-lit classroom on the first floor of Pamplin Hall.

Yet on a Monday afternoon in December, that space hosted the university’s equivalent of Congress, as President Tim Sands presided over a hybrid meeting of the University Council, one of the main governing bodies of Virginia Tech's system of shared governance.

Shared governance has been embedded in Virginia Tech's DNA for decades. The concept took root in the 1960s, as universities nationwide embraced the idea of an interdependent ecosystem of students, faculty, staff, and administrators who collectively problem-solved to fulfill their educational mission. 

Since Virginia Tech's Board of Visitors first established the Faculty Senate in 1969, the university's approach to shared governance has evolved considerably. Recently, a significant reorganization has attempted to increase efficiency, transparency, and equitable access to the decision-making process for all campus community members.

“Our revised system of shared governance provides the Virginia Tech communities, through their respective senates, the opportunity to engage fully with and contribute to the development of the policies and processes that guide our university,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Cyril Clake. “We’re grateful for all those who contributed to these recent changes that create even more opportunities for discussion, collaboration, and accountability in university governance.”

A season of transformation

If it's like the U.S. Congress in another way, it's that the workings of shared governance at the university can seem opaque to outsiders. Faculty members surveyed for the 2020 Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education identified Virginia Tech's shared governance as an area of dissatisfaction, disagreeing with survey items such as “I understand how to voice opinions about policies” and “Institution regularly reviews effectiveness of governance.”

It had been 25 years since the governance structure had experienced more than minor modifications. So in the spring of 2019, Sands commissioned a Committee on Governance and, later, a Task Force on the Future of Student Governance to develop guiding principles for effective and equitable governance and outline possible changes. Their recommendations resulted in an overhaul to the University Council Constitution and Bylaws, effective in July, as well as additional changes that were implemented earlier. 

As Sands has said, “All voices are important at Virginia Tech.” Seismic shifts in shared governance have streamlined processes, eased the burden on representatives, and ensured there’s no legislation without representation for anyone in the university community. 

Here's what has changed: 

University Council downsizes, appoints a cabinet

University Council — a body that includes senate representatives, selected vice presidents, deans, faculty members, staff members, graduate students, and undergraduate students — votes on all suggested policy and programmatic changes. Reducing its membership from 81 people to 59 was intended to simplify and speed up its work. (You can see the full membership of University Council at the Governance website.)

Improving efficiency and facilitating collaborative decision-making was also the impetus behind the creation of a new 14-member University Council cabinet. Co-chaired by Clarke and Faculty Senate President Robert Weiss, the cabinet offers a forum for more in-depth conversations and coordination. "It's a smaller group, so it's much easier to communicate about something very quickly," said Weiss.

A draft resolution that originates in one of 10 commissions, such as the Commission on Research or the Commission on Faculty Affairs, now will be checked by the University Council Cabinet to ensure that it falls within the commission's purview before it proceeds through various rounds of reading and comment by the five representative senates. Once it's been satisfactorily revised, a resolution is eligible to be voted on by the complete University Council. 

According to the Resolution Tracker created by the Office of the Vice President for Policy and Governance, in late January nine resolutions were in various stages of the approval process. One resolution proposing to waive general education requirements for students seeking a second bachelor's degree was headed for a second reading and a vote by the University Council. Another resolution to establish a Master of Science in applied data science was in first reading by the Graduate and Professional Student Senate.

Resolutions that are approved by University Council land on the desk of the university president. Depending on the issue, some resolutions require additional approval from the Board of Visitors or the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. 

With a yes there, resolutions become official university policies.

Two new senates

In 2021, an Administrative and Professional (A/P) Faculty Senate and an Undergraduate Student Senate — a reorganization of the Student Government Association — were added to the existing Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, and Graduate and Professional Student Senate. The new five-senate structure ensures that all constituents at Virginia Tech have senate representation.

"The governance structure supports building relationships between the senates as we discuss policies and other governance matters," said Holli Gardner Drewry, president of the A/P Faculty Senate. "I am honored to be able to share A/P faculty–related insights and feedback as we work together to make recommendations or propose resolutions."

For Virginia Tech community members who want to advocate for change at the university or simply get involved in university leadership, April Myers, director of governance administration and secretary to University Council, shared this advice: “Start with your senate.”

Commissions report to senates

Resolutions take shape in 10 standing commissions, virtually all of which are assigned to one senate for oversight. 

  • The Commission on Faculty Affairs, the Commission on Research, the Commission on Graduate and Professional Studies and Policies, and the Commission on Undergraduate Studies and Policies report to the Faculty Senate.
  • The Commission on Administrative and Professional Faculty Affairs reports to the A/P Faculty Senate.
  • The Commission on Graduate and Professional Student Affairs reports to the Graduate and Professional Student Senate. 
  • The Commission on Staff Policies and Affairs reports to the Staff Senate.
  • The Commission on Undergraduate Student Affairs reports to the Undergraduate Student Senate.

Only two commissions bypass the senates and report directly to University Council: the Commission on Equal Opportunity and Diversity and the Commission on Outreach and International Affairs. Otherwise, resolutions must be approved by their respective senate before advancing to the University Council for a full vote. 

That’s a major change, said Weiss, from the previous system where senates could only comment on resolutions. The new structure, he said, “is providing a voice to the senate that can't be ignored.” It also encourages ongoing cooperation between the senate and its commissions. “In the Faculty Senate, we have regular updates from commissions at every meeting, but also we are meeting frequently with the chairs of the commissions that are associated with the Faculty Senate to be abreast of what's going on.”

The makeup of each commission and its charge is determined by policy. Members determine each comission's goals, which for the 2022–23 academic year range from revising the faculty handbook to evaluating affordable housing and stipends for graduate and professional students. 

“We have a very limited niche of power,” said Alice Fox, chair of the Commission on Graduate and Professional Student Affairs. “So the resolutions have to be very carefully worded to make sure they fit within our scope very clearly and that our representatives on University Council Cabinet can try to argue our case.”

University mission initiatives get council input

A new “university mission initiative” designation will ensure that campuswide initiatives go through the same review processes as other resolutions. University Council will vote to choose the members of steering committees for new initiatives from among the senates and the broader university community.

What qualifies as a university mission initiative? Any significant proposal that fundamentally changes the character of the university or impacts the entire university community, from faculty to students to staff. Kim O’Rourke, vice president for policy and governance, suggested that revising the composition of the Climate Action Committee might qualify. “It's something that affects everybody at the university and how we do business,” she said.

Process of course and program proposals improved 

University Council was once bogged down in resolutions to approve new courses and programs. To reduce red tape and speed up the process by 50 percent, the university-level stages of the approval process have been eliminated. Resolutions will no longer be required for program proposals.

For Fox, being involved in the university’s system of shared governance isn’t always easy. Nevertheless, she said her involvement in a senate and a commission “is a really good source of community, and you get to learn a lot about the university — how it works, how it affects people, and how the sausage is made.” 

Weiss agrees that running a university is complex — one reason that University Council plans to regularly assess the new system of governance. But for governance to work the way it’s intended to, members of the university community must step up. “We changed the governance system to have a voice,” he said, “and to choose to use our voice, but we need to do that. And we only can do that if we participate actively in the system.”

To find out more about how you can get involved with university shared governance, or to learn more about the governance structure at Virginia Tech, including how to write a resolution, visit the Governance website, which features a Resolution Tracker and a brand-new series of video tutorials.

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