What is “Governance”… and Why Do Our Naturopathic Programs and Colleges Need Some?

David Schleich, PhD

NDs by and large have come to understand the critical role played by governance in our colleges and programs. In the same way that natural medicine was much enhanced by improvements in accreditation, so too a growing sophistication in governance structures and their application to our schools contributes to the monitoring of the standards and techniques that promote high-quality curriculum and educational methodology in our colleges and universities. Hines’ (2000) concentrated overview of the governance of higher education provides an excellent backdrop for us to understand that governance is more complex than only a monitoring role, however.

For example, Engel and Acholal (1983) contributed an early review of literature and research focusing on the decision-making processes affected by governance groups, such as boards of trustees, directors or governors. Baldridge (1986), though, frames the conversation even more pointedly by showing how colleges and universities differ from other organizations, couching discussion in aspects of organizational theory. Our colleges and programs within multi-program institutions, perched as they are between the public and the private sectors, imagined a governance model akin to higher education models, but found themselves embracing what Altbach (1999), Geiger (1986), Richardson (1985) and others have described from varying perspectives as the self-limiting nature – in terms of wanting to join the mainstream of higher education, that is – of institutions beholden to a sponsoring group or organization. In the arrangement specific to NCNM, SCNM or CCNM, for example, governance is affected by principles and practices enshrined in by-laws influenced by the interests of the sponsoring body, the NDs. The degree or even the angle of influence is not as likely in a multi-program university environment (e.g. Bastyr, National University of Health Science in Lombard, Ill., or the University of Bridgeport). Where it does exist, though, this built-in deference to the goals of the profession makes it difficult sometimes for the institution to make decisions easily about initiatives that could propel the institution toward a higher education structure and away from the direct influence and control of the naturopathic profession.

This influence also shows up operationally in issues such as the relationship between the college’s administrative leaders and the college’s governing medical professionals. Thus, as the institution appears to yearn for a higher education identity, complete with characteristics of a governance model that includes aspects like a role for faculty stakeholders in decision-making, log jams occur, tugging the institution back toward the goals of a profession committed to what Richardson (1985) elsewhere has called “social closure,” or the acceptance by society of the professional group and of its particular knowledge and skill set. In this way, then, the dimension of higher education governance and management related to decision-making is one of the bigger challenges of our network of programs and institutions going forward in this century.

Birnbaum (1991) describes lucidly some of the key problems associated with governance, such as the sources of authority and their derivation in higher education institutions. Hardy (1996), Sibley (1983), Jones and Skolnik (1997), Cameron (1992), Engel and Achola (1983) amplify our understanding of these essential governance concerns by studying specific cases in different jurisdictions in the U.S. and Canada. What surfaces from this literature is the existence in practice of formal and informal governance patterns in naturopathic medical education’s institutional development.

Scholars interested in governance give us a toehold on understanding this complicated arena. The areas often explored are the historical evolution of governance, self-regulation in higher education (Kells, 1992), paradigms of governance in higher education (McDaniel, 1996) and the most ubiquitous governance models themselves (Rhoades, 1992; Hines, 2000; Birnbaum, 1989). Also part of governance literature is considerations about where higher education employee organizations representing faculty, non-teaching staff and administration fit in the governance process. Unions and collective bargaining, for example, constitute a dynamic in public sector institutions that is not present in private-sector institutions like our colleges. Those groups constitute another way for stakeholders to influence institutional policy, thus creating a very real governance force in the university and the college (Sibley, 1983).

The naturopathic college governance structure is more clearly understood against a palette of other governance patterns such as those described by McDaniel (1996), which include a blend of accountability coupled with sensitivity to the differing roles of management and board members. In any case, how stakeholders access and share power and influence in the running of higher education institutions is very complex. Our many colleges’ governing boards over the years have had varying degrees of success in such aspects of governance as continuity of appointment, training, consistency of policy formation and application, fundraising and advancement, and visioning and strategic planning for the institution. Especially helpful is literature about the governing boards of private-sector institutions and how these stack up against public-sector institutions (Hatton, 1991). The track record of boards overall, though, is not well documented in the literature.

A related branch of the literature helping us understand the characteristics of higher education and the patterns of governance and institutional development that have occurred for our colleges between 1956 and now is institutional theory. This literature attempts to make sense of the behavior of institutional dynamics by considering an organization’s relationship with related institutions. In this regard, DiMaggio and Powell (1983) introduce us to a fascinating trend that has affected all our institutions in one way or another, at one time or another. They stress the impact of “isomorphism,” a “process of convergence that yields similarities among organizations” (p. 151) to explain how organizations evolve and function “in routine, unreflective, constrained modes” (DiMaggio and Powell, 1991, p. 11). In this way institutions become very similar, reflecting the operation of isomorphism. What this translates into is that some of our institutions eventually drift to becoming more like comprehensive universities than colleges of naturopathic medicine only.

Where the institution consciously chooses not to differentiate its programming (perhaps SCNM and CCNM are in this mode), there is less of an institutional impulse to become more like multi-program, multi-discipline institutions in the higher education realm than like the small, proprietary colleges from which we sprang. DiMaggio and Powell (1991) later pointed out that the “routine, unreflective, constrained modes” of institutional behavior “lead to extensive copying [of like institutions]” (p. 12). March and Olsen (1984) asserted earlier that a “resurgence of concern with institutions is a cumulative consequence of the modern transformation of social institutions” (p. 734).

What emerges from these considerations is that entry into the higher education realm by private-sector, proprietary schools and private-sector nonprofit, professional schools is, in turn, part of the larger debate about whether the university in our time is being joined more often than not by the entry into higher education of private institutions whose strategic plans often are not accompanied by a drift toward “comprehensiveness” (Ruch, 2001). When this occurs, the governance model of the institution often transforms along with the institution.

David_Schleich_Headshot-248x300David Schleich, PhD is president and CEO of NCNM, former president of Truestar Health, and former CEO and president of CCNM, where he served from 1996 to 2003. Other previous posts have included appointments as vice president academic of Niagara College, and administrative and teaching positions at St. Lawrence College, Swinburne University (Australia) and the University of Alberta. His academic credentials have been earned from the University of Western Ontario (BA), the University of Alberta (MA), Queen’s University (BEd) and the University of Toronto (PhD).


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