Student Participation in Institutional Governance and Decision Making: Having a Seat at the Table

Long gone are the days of faculty-only institutional governance serving as the sole steering force for colleges and universities. In today’s age, high-level administrators play more significant roles in guiding colleges and universities, navigating the complex world of profit-bearing ventures, seeking advanced institutional rankings, and directing partnerships with external entities attempting to secure funding and prestige. Students are now seen as consumer-like stakeholders, paying high prices to attend college. As campuses continue to increase in complexity, viewing students as these consumers and stakeholders, it becomes more critical to involve students in university governance to seek their voices in institutional decision making.

A Brief History 

As far back as the 1700s, student self-governance has been a reality in higher education within the United States, and the concept of empowering students to govern and advocate on behalf of their peers, mirrors democracy in the greater political realm of the United States. From the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, students’ voices became even more pronounced, requiring institutions to reconsider the role of students and student opinion when making decisions. Student activism in the 1960s and 1970s pushed administrators to think critically about the role of students in institutional decision making. 

It was during this time that student activists demonstrated their ability to gain attention, thus increasing the power of student input. As colleges and universities have, to some degree, involved students in institutional decision making, their commitment to do so was reinforced through the impact of student activism combined with a student-as-stakeholder mentality. Student involvement in institutional decision making declined in the 1980s, leaving some to think student participation would decrease or be discontinued. However, this this does not appear to be the case, as can be seen on campuses everywhere. 

Student Governance Organizations 

Colleges and universities educate students, but some also view students as stakeholders intended to receive goods and services in the form of education, on-campus services, and products. Through this lens of consumerism, there may be an increased desire to meet the wishes of the stakeholders. So how do college and university leadership effectively engage students? Asking individual students for input by involving them in university committees may be ineffective, as some students may speak for themselves versus their peers. One solution is partnering with established student governance entities as a means to gather student feedback in the decision-making process. 

Several student-level governance organizations found on college campuses include student government associations, graduate student associations, and residence hall associations. A purpose of these organizations is already to offer students some influence over institutional decision making. 

In 1999, Eugene Ratsoy and Bing Zuo published a study of student governance organizations in The Canadian Journal of Higher Education, which focused on “scope, process, and effects of student participation in university governance.” They determined several factors associated with why students chose to participate in student government activities, including students’ desire to participate in institutional control, personal growth in terms of experience and social skills, and a desire to serve their fellow students. 

Jennifer M. Miles, Michael T. Miller, and Daniel P. Nadler investigated perceived ideal characteristics and elements of student governance organizations across six colleges and universities. Published in 2008 in the College Student Journal, they found that strong ideal characteristics included a student governing group having a clear sense of their purpose, an opportunity to channel student input about institutional functioning, and a desire to encompass a wide variety of student concerns and issues. A short list of effective action items included conducting significant and tangible dialogue, possessing the resources needed to fulfill their purpose, and clearly outlining the duties of the organization’s officers. Through the combination of these characteristics and elements, effective student governing groups know who they are and who they serve, while having the ability to complete commitments through dedicated student leaders with sufficient resources and advocacy to affect institutional decision making. 

They also identified ideal characteristics of the individual student leaders working within the student governance organizations. Ideal factors included student leaders’ interest in representing constituent interests, willingness to communicate with a diverse range of students, and desire to advocate on behalf of the students. This list of factors may seem aspirational. However, student affairs practitioners can help achieve them by providing consistent group advising and a supportive administrative environment that values student input.  

The Peaks of Student Participation 

Once student governance organizations are acknowledged as able to represent students on college campuses and supported through dedicated student leaders, they may be invited to the decision-making table alongside key administrators. Once this occurs, opportunities open to varying levels of decision-making authority. In several ways, student participation in institutional governance is beneficial. Students in governing groups are seen as the first people able to figure out when things are amiss on college campuses. They are seen as having primary connections with their peers, enabling them to gain a quick sense of under- or malfunctioning delivery of student services; a collection point for suggestions to enhance academic or other programs; and serving as a liaison between students and administration. This latter piece can aid in conveying information in ways better received by students, resulting in better implementation of
student-specific suggestions. 

A critical consideration is the need to genuinely involve students and not to merely pander to their participation on governance committees. Ratsoy and Zuo argued that university leaders have an obligation to involve students in institutional governance to teach students how the university functions and empower them to develop leadership skills. This makes sense when thinking about how the goals of educating students pertain to overall skill enhancement, holistic development, and future career employability as paramount to college missions. What better way to achieve this mission than to connect academic coursework and hands-on experience through institutional leadership opportunities addressing real-life scenarios requiring the use of critical thinking skills? Student learning is at the forefront of the academic mission, and allowing students opportunities to apply their learnings permits them to experience the impact they have in institutional functioning. 

The Pits of Student Participation 

There are some areas of concern regarding student participation in institutional decision making. One in particular is that there should be a limitation on student participation: often it does not and should not include issues pertaining to concerns such as faculty tenure processes and human resources personnel issues. Additional concerns related to student participation could center around student maturity, lacking awareness of overarching institutional concerns and peer students’ needs, individual students’ lack of experience in decision making, and conflicts of interest in students’ representation of select student groups versus peers in general. While these are concerns, they can be mitigated through proper training and guidance by key members of the administration, such as committee chairs and professional advisors. 

Conclusion 

Colleges and universities have been experiencing rising costs to attend college, building more elaborate facilities, and striving to increase retention rates. These practices are primarily meant to attract and retain students while striving to increase their place in college rankings. Considering these factors, colleges and universities have done well in incorporating students in institutional decision making. Students offer valuable insight into what is happening from a “front line” perspective not always seen by administration. As the target of education for a campus, their voices can and should be heard. 

There are downsides, however. When students are placed on committees impacting institutional decisions, they tend to want to believe their opinion will be regarded as highly as possible. This may not always be the case when there are external or internal politics at play, or even when the suggestions students offer are not feasible. How is student feedback structured when their suggestions, while appreciated, most likely will not be implemented? Is time being taken to genuinely speak with students and explain to them at times when their suggestions and feedback is not heeded or implemented? It is during these discussions when the highest sense of learning can come as students understand how decisions are made on a larger scale. 

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