Governance Defined

The term governance refers to the structures and processes through which decisions are made by governing boards, faculty, staff, and students related to both internal and external issues affecting a given institution. While many areas of community college governance resemble governance structures at four-year colleges and universities, the community college historic link to public K-12 school governance may be more or less pronounced depending upon the state or local setting (Cohen & Brawer, 2003).

Primary Models for Community College Organization

  • Bureaucratic – organizational power structured like a pyramid where authority is delegated from top down, with students and faculty at the bottom of the pyramid
  • Political – all organizational members are part of community and are in constant contact or conflict; whereby communication and power flows throughout the organization and between points instead of through specific offices or power structures

Organizational Structure – Governing Boards & Administration

Most two year institutions are organized at the state level in districts governed by an elected or government-appointed board of trustees; trustees are charged with hiring a president/chief executive officer, who is then responsible for hiring an administrative team tasked with executing the major functions of the organization. Typically, vice presidents or deans are appointed for each major unit including business affairs, human resources, academic affairs, and student affairs. Expansion of the vice presidential level of administration is largely dependent upon the size of the school or district.

District-centered community college systems will also have an additional layer of administration above the individual college. Typically, these include a system or district chancellor who reports to a governing board and oversees a staff of district-level vice chancellors responsible for external relations, academic affairs and institutional research, business affairs, and the like. Layers of administrative oversight vary from state to state. Several states have state-wide governance structures and all have a coordinating agency of some type.

The utility of centralizing governance has been debated for some time. Most advocates point to reaching economies of scale in centralizing administrative functions. Some, however, have suggested that greater centralization of administrative structures and the added layers of administration, further distancing the chief executive from lower-level administrators and staff, has led to greater depersonalization of the impacted organizations and lower staff and faculty morale (Cohen & Brawer, 121).

State influence has also dictated the actions of community college chief executives. Recently, the majority of community college presidents surveyed reported traveling to their respective state legislature while it was in session to advocate on behalf of their institution, and most speak to their state representative or state senator more than ten times a year. Clearly, although these community college presidents are directly answerable to their respective governing boards, engagement of decision makers who influence funding mechanisms influences the activity of community college chief executives (Cohen & Brawer, 129).

Basic Principles of Effective Governance Boards

  • Board is principally involved in deciding ends (not means)
  • Board should focus primarily on the future
  • Institutional outcomes are measured by the college and monitored by the Board
  • Board acts through policies
  • Board acts only as a whole
  • All authority delegated by the Board is delegated to the president
  • Board’s highest priority is student learning and student success

(Potter & Phelan, 2008)

Internal Governance

Over the past forty years, community colleges have been transformed from small organizations administrated by leaders with significant levels of authority to robust and complex organizations staffed by specialists in a variety of departments and administrative units. As institutions grew in size, a pyramid structure evolved which created tension between faculty and administrators over their roles in decision making and resource allocation. Student unrest and faculty militancy in the 1960s led to administrative decisions being made in based on compromise and reconciliation between contending forces (Richardson, Blocker, & Bender, 1972). In the 1990s, governance structures began to shift towards corporate models as stakeholders vocalized their expectations, technological innovation increased competition from the for-profit sector, and performance documentation intensified. (Alfred, 2008)

Governing Boards
Board of Trustees; Board of Regents; Board of Directors; Board of Governors
Ability to provide feedback and informal assessment on educational/program quality; potentially high level of community engagement
Politically motivated; uninformed decision-making; “rogue trustee” problems; not always representative of all external constituencies
Faculty Senate; Faculty Assembly
Curriculum development; shape institutional policy related to academic decisions
Mixed involvement – sporadic/inconsistent vs. active (largely based on issue relevance and personal motivation; large number of adjunct faculty; unionized faculty
Student Government;
Student Assembly

Student input on institutional policy and resources; leadership opportunities for student development
Difficult to get representation of diverse study body; traditionally students are less involved but increasing full-time traditional cohort has expectations of governance involvement
Staff & Administration
Staff Senate; Staff Council; Staff Assembly
Financial decision-making and cost reduction; greater acceptance of decisions; increased staff morale
Blurred lines of authority and power in decision-making; diverse institutional missions can create tension and resource competition

Future Challenges

Some have suggested governance at community colleges should focus on institutional culture, communication, and team-based leadership instead of traditional governance structures (Amey, E. Jessup-Anger, and J. Jessup-Anger, 10). In the same vein, many non-structural influences may impact institutional governance, such as trust, constituent involvement, and institutional culture. It is important to acknowledge these non-traditional avenues for organizational influence when entering a community college. Such non-traditional means may allow stakeholders to gain influence and a place at the decision-making table.

Operating outside the realm of traditional governance structures in the future will allow community college stakeholders to respond more directly to many of the challenges facing this institutional type. At organizations of this scale, which are required to respond quickly to market conditions, it is especially important to empower students, faculty, staff, trustees, and community members at every level of institutional leadership. Molding the governance of community colleges in to mobile and fluid structures will allow community colleges to remain on the forefront of their respective community needs.

The concept of a shared governance approach at community colleges tends to be an ideal rather than reality, especially given the large number of transient faculty employed by most institutions. However, with a new line of full-time faculty who are intentionally choosing to work in a community college, there is likely to be an increased desire for faculty to be involved with institutional decision making (Miller & Miles, 2008).

Over the past decade, significant changes (defined as elimination, establishment, or change in authority) to state-level boards have been made in nearly a dozen states, and were largely the result of lagging educational standards and financial economic constraints (Friedel, 2008). Increased demand for post-secondary education and financial shortfalls will continue to put pressure on both state and institutional governing bodies, and require leaders to adjust existing decision making processes in order to improve instiutional effectiveness and efficiency.

Helpful Websites

Association to Community College Trustees -

Community College Governance (by state)

American Association of Community Colleges -

National Education Association -

David Ayers, University of North Carolina--Greensboro
Addressing issues of governance and policy within North Carolina


Alfred, R. L. (2008). Governance in strategic context. New Directions in Community Colleges, 141, 79-90.
Amey, M. J., Jessup-Anger, E., & Jessup-Anger, J. (2008). Community college governance: What matters and why? New Directions in Community Colleges, 141, 5-14.
Cohen, A. M., & Brawer, F. B. (2008). The American Community College (5th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Friedel, J. N. (2008). The effect of the community college workforce development mission on governance. New Directions in Community Colleges, 141, 45-56.
Garfield, T. K. (2008). Governance in a Union Environment. New Directions in Community Colleges, 141, 25-34.
Miller, M. T. & Miles, J. M. (2008). Internal governance in the community college: Models and quilts. New Directions in Community Colleges, 141, 35-44.
Potter, G. E. & Phelan, D. J. (2008). Governance over the years: a trustee’s perspective. New Directions in Community Colleges, 141, 15-24.
Richardson, R. C., Blocker, C. E., & Bender, L. W. (1972). Governance for the two-year college. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Schuetz, P. (2008). Key resources on community college governance. New Directions in Community Colleges, 141, 91-98.