The Conway School’s Collaborative Decision-Making Model
The Conway School follows a collaborative process that engages all employees (and trustees where appropriate) in thoughtful discussion and participation in decisions large and small. The model is flexible and adaptive, allowing responses to conditions inside and outside the school. It includes multiple circuits of mutual accountability, oversight, and responsibility and therefore depends on relationships of trust and collegiality (which are both the preconditions for and the outcomes of the process) and on an open sharing of information and transparency about what we are doing and why. Employees are also intimately involved in designing, evaluating, and revising these decision-making processes, allowing for their evolution as needs arise.
Conway may well be the only higher education institution in the US that functions using this model (though similar or related models can be found in, for example, the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, and elsewhere). Though unusual, the model has received the full approval of the New England Commission of Higher Education, the regional body that accredits the school.
Not all employees are involved in making all decisions, or engaged in endless meetings attempting to reach consensus on every decision concerning curriculum, facilities, administration, development, admissions, and so on. Though every meeting is open to any employee who wants to join, in practice different sub-groups take on the responsibility of collaborating to reach decisions about areas that they have particular knowledge about. Individual employees also have license (or the responsibility) to arrive at many or most day-to-day decisions on their own—though because these decisions are always understood to be in the context of others’ work, decision makers have a responsibility to consult with those affected by any decision. Decisions that impact the work of others are not made in isolation or without regard for their multiple consequences.
One core group is the coordinators. These are seven employees who work full time or nearly full time, who can gather quickly to discuss issues that arise when decisions have to be made promptly; they also meet once a week to share information, make decisions, determine which decisions need to be opened up to the full employee group, and make recommendations for the employees to accept or reject. The coordinators also discuss and make recommendations to inform the board of trustees as the trustees prepare to make decisions in areas that are their responsibility. Coordinators collectively create the agenda for the weekly coordinator meeting, rotate facilitating and note taking, and email the notes from the weekly meeting to all employees, usually within 48 hours. All employees are welcome to join the coordinator meetings and can ask for topics to be raised or issues resolved in this forum (and occasionally trustees are invited or ask to join to discuss a specific issue). The group’s membership has evolved somewhat organically, following the principle of “those who are here the most should meet weekly.” Other employees who are not members of the group have been asked if they would like to join and thus far none has, but a formal process for this (whether there are particular criteria to be met or not) is in development.
Included in the coordinators group are the three formally designated co-directors of the school. They are the only employees hired by the board of trustees. Despite the title of “co-director,” there are very few decisions that the Conway co-directors make on their own.
While each co-director has a particular area of responsibility, one of their critical joint functions is to communicate and facilitate the flow of information, suggestions, and questions back and forth among the board of trustees and the dozen or so faculty and administrative staff. The current co-director titles at Conway are Executive Director, Administrative Director, and Academic Director, but a different combination of employees with a different mix of areas of expertise could also fill the roles of co-directors.
Prior to the start of each fiscal year, employees anonymously assess the co-directors’ work and make formal recommendations to the board to hire or not hire the co-directors. In addition, various feedback loops connect trustees and employees directly. If and when the situation arises when any member of this community needs to communicate with others, those communications do not need to be filtered through the co-directors.
In traditional higher education institutions, the board typically hires an executive director or head of school who sits at the apex of a pyramid of employees, all of whom are ultimately answerable to that administrator. The head of school in that model typically formally hires the next level of administrative workers (the deans, the provosts, etc.), who then hire those employees lower in the hierarchy, and so on. The Conway School does not follow this model. (As noted above, the New England Commission of Higher Education has endorsed the Conway model.)
The Board of Trustees
The Conway School is a non-profit independent institution with a board of trustees consisting of a minimum of seven but more typically twelve to sixteen volunteers, with at least two Conway alums. The board has legal fiduciary oversight of the school’s finances and is responsible for monitoring whether the activities of the employees are consistent with the school’s mission. The board supports the staff as needed and raises funds for the school. In consultation with employees, the board hires the co-directors and chooses new board members. In 2018, the trustees elected the first Conway employee to the board. (She served simultaneously in both roles and has since retired as an employee and remains on the board as a trustee.) Trustees serve on various board committees (Executive, Academic Affairs, Communications, Development, Finance, and/or Governance). While the board is not and should not be involved in the day-to-day operations of the school, some trustees also volunteer to serve on working groups as co-equals with employees and other members.
The coordinators at times determine that certain issues should be addressed by a larger group—perhaps because the issue requires a wider perspective or expertise, or because the coordinators need help and are pressed for time—and a working group is formed. Working groups are ad hoc and short-term bodies of co-equal volunteers who come together for a narrowly defined purpose. They are made up of employees, trustees, alums, and other friends of the school. Often the group is asked to do research on a topic, assess pros and cons of various alternatives, and make recommendations back to the coordinators for further action. Working groups are not charged with making decisions. The working groups are not board committees and they can be chaired or facilitated by any member. In recent years working groups have been formed to help, for example, with planning for Covid-19 contingencies, employee transitions, Conway Institute workshops, and social justice initiatives. Once the work of the group is done (typically, in the form of delivering recommendations to the coordinators), the working group is disbanded.
The Winter Meeting
Once a year, in January or February, all employees and trustees gather for a discussion of important issues facing the school. They review large decisions (such as selling and buying property), set budget priorities, and reaffirm (or amend) core institutional values. (In the February 2018 meeting, trustees and employees affirmed overwhelmingly that the current decision-making processes and structure should be continued.) The Winter Meeting is a forum for employees and trustees to meet as equals to set the course of the school and construct together a common vision for its future.
An Evolving Model Consistent with Our Values and Our Educational Practices
All of this may seem cumbersome in description, but the combined elements described above function smoothly and organically in practice. In addition, we believe this evolving model is consistent with the school’s mission, values, and curriculum. Conway teaches a design and planning process that is collaborative and requires respectful engagement with individuals and communities. And when students work on real-world projects supported by faculty and staff who do not know exactly what the outcomes will or should be, a collaborative culture of mutual learning is crucial. The decision-making model furthermore strengthens the school’s ability to respond to challenges and take advantage of opportunities, and creates a collaborative, efficient, and enjoyable workplace. We will continue to evaluate the model, which we believe is innovative and yet in line with Conway traditions, and adapt it as needed.