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Greg Purdy

Greg Purdy is a fifth year PhD candidate in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. His research is related to applying modern traditional manufacturing models to genetic manufacturing systems to reduce cost, time, and increase efficiency in the production of synthetic DNA fragments.More about Greg ...

While the way student governments are formed and executed differs, there is widespread student involvement at each university as it pertains to the governance and policy making initiatives of the university. Greg

Graduate student time is normally spent as a researcher, teacher, or laboratory assistant. These types of activities are used to facilitate the apprenticeship model of higher education which has been in existence for hundreds of years. This model continues to create high caliber post baccalaureate students who are able to take on the role of tenure track faculty, teaching faculty, industrial professionals, government experts, and innovative entrepreneurs. However, there is another aspect of a graduate student’s time which rarely receives the proper acknowledgement in creating future leaders. This is the time spent in service related activities such as departmental committees and commissions, professional societies, and student government related organizations.

While service activities may not be generally considered as traditional aspects of graduate student life, there are many benefits to being involved during graduate school. Service activities can foster skills that cannot be taught in the laboratory while creating networking opportunities outside of traditional discipline domains and promoting work life balance. With all these advantages, it is important to better understand how service activities can differ within the context of global higher education.

Service is a broad category with many facets. Organized student governance is one potential avenue for service which students can be a part of during their academic careers. Within university governance, student leaders play a pivotal role in communication of student interests to various university stakeholders. Many universities in the United States have a system of shared governance. Over the years, shared governance has evolved to include many different campus demographic groups. At Virginia Tech, shared governance includes undergraduate students, graduate students, staff, faculty, administrative and professional faculty and administrators. Including these diverse groups and opinions is common at a number of state universities in the United States, but is this also the case for global higher education? This reflection will look at how student involvement in university governance occurs in both Switzerland and Italy as compared to the systems in place at Virginia Tech.

Student Governance at Virginia Tech

For over thirty years, the Graduate Student Assembly has served as the voice and advocacy arm for graduate students at Virginia Tech. Their structure has fluctuated over the years, but their charge has remained firm. The organization aims at helping to build community, improving the lives of graduate students through change, and fostering graduate development through funding programs. To facilitate these goals, the organization is composed of elected officers as well as representatives from all the university colleges. This creates a leadership core to manage the day to day and long-term operations as well as a large group of representative voices to help determine the graduate student collective opinion on issues. This type of structure is similar to how the United States political system is composed with both an executive and legislative branch.

Shared Governance Structure at Virginia Tech

The representatives of the Graduate Student Assembly are vital in formulating the opinions for the graduate student body at Virginia Tech. Within the larger shared governance model, the Graduate Student Assembly is able to make appointments to each of the committees and commissions which advise the university administration on policy changes. Figure 1 shows a simplified governance structure at Virginia Tech. With this system, graduate students are able to have a direct voice in the formation of new policy and revision of existing policy. Undergraduate students, staff, and faculty each have their own organizations which fulfill a similar purpose at Virginia Tech. As changes move through the system, they become policy recommendations within the University Council which is made up of high level administrators and representatives from the key university demographic groups. Once changes are approved by the University Council, they may need a final step in order to be adopted by the University. The Virginia Tech Board of Visitors is the final authority in policy changes which affect the university. This body is made up of members appointed by the governor of Virginia as well as a graduate student, undergraduate student, faculty, and staff representative. This model ensures that through all levels of the governance process, students, faculty, and staff are involved in any policy changes which will affect the university as a whole.

University Governance Systems in Switzerland and Italy

When comparing the systems of university governance found in Switzerland and Italy to the United States, there are many similarities. While titles or committees may be different, the overall way in which governance is carried out remains similar. There is an emphasis on including the key demographic groups in the governance process. While the idea of shared governance may not always be formalized, it is still apparent that involving a wide range of opinions is important in the operation of a university regardless of the country of origin.

The University of Zurich has a governance structure similar to Virginia Tech. Throughout their governance introduction as well as on their website, they specifically highlight the following:

“The inclusion of an appropriate representation of students and staff in decision-making processes is an expression of shared responsibility.”

This statement is similar in nature to the shared governance philosophy adopted by many universities in the US. At the University of Zurich, there is a Board which oversees the operations of the University. Directly reporting to the board is a Senate comprised of professors, staff, and students. Also reporting to the board is the five members of the Executive Board including the President. An Extended Executive Board of the University includes administrators, deans, staff, student body representatives, and four other members from specific units within the university, which also reports to the University Board. Finally, the University community is able to weigh in on certain issues and has representation through the Extended Executive Board. In many respects, the Extended Executive Board is synonymous with Virginia Tech’s University Council. Given that both Virginia Tech and the University of Zurich are comparable in size of the overall university and number of students, it is interesting that similar governance structures have also been adopted in two completely different areas of the world with vastly different funding models and political dynamics.

The University of Basel also employs a system which incorporates the voices of various constituent groups. At the University of Basel, there is a University Council which is made up of ten members and serves as the ultimate authority for various decisions at the University. In this respect it acts in a similar fashion to the Virginia Tech Board of Visitors. Underneath the University Council, there are multiple reporting units. The Senate incorporates various campus demographic groups including professors from each major subject area, staff, assistants, and students from each of the major faculties. The Rector’s council reports to the University Council and includes the Rectors and Deans from each faculty. The University Council, Senate, and Rector’s Council each have various committees which handle different aspects of the universities administrative tasks and high level strategic plans. Many of these committees have both student and staff representation. Of the universities visited in Switzerland and Italy, the University of Basel appears to have an organizational structure which is most similar to what is utilized at Virginia Tech.

The Politecnico di Milano also chooses to incorporate a wide range of groups within their university governance structure. Three main bodies are responsible for governance and include the Academic Senate, Board of Governors, and Board of Auditors. The Academic Senate is the main governing body which oversees the operation of the university; especially the teaching and research activities. The Board of Governors handles the policy changes needed within the university and deals primarily with the administrative, economic, and property related decisions. The Board of Auditors is an independent group which can be consulted to ensure the “correctness of Politecnico’s administrative management.” For each body there are also committees and commissions which report to their respective group. On both the Academic Senate and Board of Governors there are both staff and student members who are selected as representatives for their demographic groups.

Both in Switzerland and Italy, the idea of shared governance is utilized. While not named under the same term, all of the universities that were visited during the Global Perspectives Program 2015 trip were keen on including as many perspectives as possible in their decision making processes. The Universities of Zurich and Basel along with Politecnico di Milano all have systems which are similar to Virginia Tech. In these systems there is a main governing board with a few influential members from society or prior alumnus. Underneath this main body there is another group which makes decisions for the university and includes broad membership from many different constituency groups. The groups which report to this body do differ to an extent. Some have different boards or senates while others have commissions and committees which directly report. Regardless, there is broad representation at virtually every level of university governance. Additionally, it is interesting to find that both students and staff have been incorporated within these different governing bodies all over the world.

Student Governance in Switzerland and Italy

Student governments differ more than the university structure for both Switzerland and Italy. Some of these groups are organized with regular elections, while others have no formal group to voice the student concerns. At most of the larger universities, there is an organized student organization which represents students. However, at some of the smaller or more regional campuses, there is not the same level of student involvement in the governance process.

At the University of Zurich, there is an organized student group called Verband der Studierenden der Universität Zürich (VSUZH) which acts as the student government. They have elections for the VSUZH council and hold meetings which are open to the student body. Part of their organizational responsibilities include maintaining internal student committees as well as making appointments to the University Committees and Commissions. In addition to governance the organization puts on a number of services which range from working with new students to cultural awareness.

Other major universities in Switzerland also have prominent student governance organizations. The University of Basel has the Studentische Körperschaft der Universität Basel. At Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) Zürich there is the Verband der Studierenden an der ETH Zürich. Additionally, the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland has the students.fhnw organization. Each of these groups provides both advocacy and social initiatives for their university.

At Politecnico di Milano there is a student government organization called Svoltastudenti which provides services and opportunities for students at the university. Appointing to the Academic Senate and the Board of Directors is fulfilled through a student election. There are a number of different groups which put forth candidates for the election including the Svoltastudenti.

At some of the more regional universities in Switzerland, student governance is not as much of an organized initiative. Both the Università della Svizzera italiana and Scuola universitaria professionale della Svizzera italiana incorporates students in the boards which make decisions for the university, but there is not a recognized student governance association.

While the way student governments are formed and executed differs, there is widespread student involvement at each university as it pertains to the governance and policy making initiatives of the university.


Throughout the Global Perspectives Program it was interesting to observe the different implementations of university governance. The level of involvement for students, faculty, and staff differ dramatically across the different types of universities. Structurally, many of the larger universities have systems which are similar in nature to Virginia Tech’s model. However, many of the regional schools have systems which do not have the same level of shared involvement specifically as it relates to student government organizations. In some respects, this observation can also be found in the United States. When looking at community colleges, many have differing shared governance models with varied levels of involvement from students, faculty, and staff.

As far as student involvement within the various governance systems, there were a few observations. Especially at the larger schools visited in both Switzerland and Italy, there was a great deal of involvement by the students in the governance of the University. The University of Basel even has more involvement from among the graduate students (especially PhD students) than from the non-graduate students. This is definitely not the norm in the United States where student government is dominated by the undergraduate student population.

One interesting aspect of student governance, specifically in Switzerland, is the way issues are handled by the administration. Both at the University of Zurich and Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich there was a common mentality of listening to issues that students bring up and fixing them if they “make sense.” Based on the information provided by both the administrators and students, it seems there is less need to go through bureaucratic processes to make changes which everyone agrees upon. In many cases, it may be as simple as the administration taking action immediately to appease the students or other concerned group.

Many of the issues and concerns for students in the United States are also voiced by students in Switzerland and Italy. While there are different political and economic policies between the three countries, there is still a sense that students want to be involved in their education and the policies which govern their university. For graduate students, the time spent working on service related activities such as student government are typically not included as common uses of time. Moving forward, the hope is that service related activities will become the norm for most graduate students. Based on the models which exist for university governance in the United States, Switzerland, and Italy; there is definitely ample opportunities for interested student leaders to take part in shaping their university experiences.