Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Surviving Academic Committees

Late last year I was elected as the science department rep on the ExComm that has a high level role in shared governance at our college. This was the biggest time challenge for me this past year (and this coming year), which put it at the top of the list for things to blog about this summer.

Given the high level of aversion to service on any of our major, college-wide committees by my fellow faculty and the fact that a recent report says the confidence of new faculty that they are "very effectively prepared" to serve on any academic committee only rises from 10% to 50% in five years (and that probably includes the most mundane ones), this is probably something that deserves writing about.


I did not enter into last year's major committee assignment lightly, because I knew (more or less) what I was getting into. I had served on the university-wide policy committee for my Grad U during the later part of my years in grad school, and that invaluable experience probably added 6 months to my degree. Just as importantly, some of my CC office neighbors have active roles in governance (two on this particular committee) and helped mentor me on what was involved, but also reminded me that I had the skills to deal with the sorts of policy wonk and legalistic details that might show up.

(Given the unbloggable events we ended up having to deal with this year, in retrospect it was incredible luck that someone was representing our part of the campus who had dealt with something just as nasty and political in the past millennium. Even my experience with Roberts Rules from a mock legislature in middle school and going to Boys State came into play, it turned out.)

But I digress, other than to start by saying that these sorts of jobs need some of the best faculty in them, not just the minor politicos and union leaders who might be drawn to this task, and that you cannot predict what will come your way. Even that situation was "interesting" (in the Chinese proverb sense), because I learned a lot about individual faculty and administrators that I had no inkling of before. The most important lesson there was that the campus rumor mill is very inefficient and often wrong, leading one to assume the pump was primed somewhere with false information. Never act solely on your perception that a fellow professor is rational. (This is where service on a high-level committee can be risky for an untenured professor. That is one of two reasons - the other being knowledge of the institution itself - that argues against junior faculty taking on this sort of service. If someone is interested, get them involved at a lower level or mentor them by bringing them up to speed on the things that must be acted on.)

Well-run meetings

Although this article by Dean Dad is about running a faculty meeting (either departmental or college level, where the Chair or Dean dictates the agenda) rather than a committee meeting, much of the advice applies here as well. In particular, an open discussion is sometimes needed to frame the problem, but that should only be done once. After that "put a concrete proposal on the table and ask for specific objections. When they're voiced, ask for specific alternatives", as Dean Dad put it.

For another point of view, and some additional tactical matters, see this IHE article about Faculty Meetings. This is more in the form of humor therapy, but your meeting will run better if you have tactics to deal with these people (some are in Dean Dad's article).


We always have a printed agenda with information items first, as he recommends, but we waste a lot of time on those when an item triggers discussion. Technically, any such discussion is out of order until we get to New Business, so the chair should put an action item under New Business if it is expected that an Information Item will require action at the meeting. Since most of those information items exist in some convenient format, I wish those announcements were printed in the agenda or attached to it so they don't even have to be read out loud.

Put the hardest decisions last and limit "me too" agreement statements if possible, but don't move so fast that there is not time to find details that got missed when read the first time. One meeting for discussion, the next for a vote. Maybe split "old business" into action items and discussion items to move things along. The basic rule of order (that no one speaks for a second time until everyone else has had a chance to speak once) will keep one person from monopolizing the discussion. Everyone should have a vague idea of the key points in the good FAQ available from the official Roberts Rules of Order (Newly Revised).

Organizing your life

I can't say enough about the importance of organizing your efforts and managing your time. Just as a meeting can go off track by spending an hour on pointless discussion of an information item while action items sit patiently waiting to be deferred to the next meeting, your day can go off track if you write a long response to an e-mail from someone with the spare time of someone who teaches a multiple choice class. Save it for the next meeting.

  • Plan ahead for the teaching year. I did that last summer, and discovered along the way that the best time to fine tune a pacing schedule or fix details in the syllabus is while the previous semester is still fresh in my mind. I can even rough out the plan for Spring.
  • I have yet to cross the threshold of developing a midterm exam for the fall, but I just might make a pass at it this summer.
  • Create more folders than you think you need, and maintain a parallel structure between the main e-mail folders and your computer files. I keep one set devoted to official ExComm business such as tentative minutes and the agenda, and another devoted to communications sent to all faculty on pending issues, budgets, and other detritus of the academic enterprise.
  • I keep one other folder just for electronic discussion related to committee issues or other topics that are work in progress.
  • Sort and toss redundant printed material at the end of the year.
  • If you are the chair, you should put together a draft of the next agenda as soon as the meeting ends, while the unresolved issues are still clear in your mind. Ditto for updating the minutes.

Lest you think that a major committee is the biggest time suck, I have found that faculty search committees are the worst and even some minor committees can be pose a real challenge. The one I am on has regular meetings and the work load is pretty steady and predictable. Others, and search committees in particular, can load a great deal of work into a month or two and tie up 5 or 6 hours (or more) in a week.


Lots of information gets moved around, mostly electronically, but the most important thing to communicate is whatever policy has been adopted. A big chunk of our time this year was wasted because a previous committee had not wrapped up loose ends and fully documented the legislative history and intent of a policy change made about 5 years earlier. Even minutes were vague about crucial details; memories were the primary repository of institutional knowledge! (And it was not just the faculty who were at fault. The administration and the Board adopted it without ever putting it into the official policy documents that were affected by the change.)

  • Only distribute pdf files of ephemera like a draft of the minutes, and clearly label it as a draft.
  • If needed, teach people how to use the Adobe commenting tools to attach corrections for action at the next meeting.
  • Produce the official, corrected minutes after the next meeting, and identify them as such when distributing and archiving them. It is essential that all main motions appear in the minutes or as an attachment that is in the same final pdf file. This is the official record of what was done.
  • Distribute an rtf file for working materials, but keep the master copy clean except for clearly identified changes. All changes from the original (particularly if it is an existing policy) should be done in a fashion similar to that described in Roberts Rules of Order for handling a committee report (section 54 of article IX of the 1915 version that is online): the committee's report should be printed exactly as it was submitted with the amendments printed below; or, still better, all words struck out should be enclosed in brackets and all words inserted should be printed in italics. and a note to that effect inserted at the beginning. The second technique (often using a strikeout for deletions and italics for insertions) is what is used when amending a bill in a legislative body.
  • I think the agenda itself should contain prototype motions on each action item, if possible. That way, people will come to the meeting knowing what they have to think about and act on. The easy way to do this is to have the person proposing an agenda item also provide the motion.

All of this serves both efficiency and the legal requirements. Hold real votes, not just one of those "everyone agrees" decisions, on important items. We had an instance where another committee gave unanimous consent to the final form of a document, but never had a formal vote recorded in the minutes. Under pressure from an interested party, one of the people tried to claim this had not happened. (Yes, that meant implying that several other professors were liars, but wimps who can't be honest with their friends will say anything without thinking of what it means.)

Having clear communication in place will also ensure that everyone knows exactly what they are voting on. That is, in particular, my reason for insisting that a revision of existing policy be presented with all deletions and insertions so everyone can see what has changed. Removal of a single key word might not be obvious just from looking at the entire final version, a trick used regularly in the US Congress to slip something by that otherwise could not stand the light of day.

In closing:

When Profgrrrrl wrote (back on Friday, 18 April) about taking on a leadership role of a faculty governance unit, with the usual concerns about being groomed for management (department chair) and some more detailed questions about how to manage this task, Nels commented: Like you, I'm getting the comments about the administrative ladder, and I ain't climbing it too high! I already feel like I'm leaving teaching too far behind sometimes.

I'll comment that sometimes your teaching skills are needed to 'teach' something up the admin pyramid, and it is often the case that our teaching job is made harder by decisions made above our pay grade by people who are now disconnected from teaching. Faculty who teach and serve an admin role can be the key to a well-run college. If they want your help badly enough, negotiate a way to keep yourself in the classroom on a part-time basis. As I wrote over there, one answer is to say "you mean you'd rather have someone less competent down here in the trenches where it has to get done right?" or "you'd rather have me out of the classroom?"


1 comment:

plam said...

I should probably get to work. Just a note on your closing comment. Our Dean, an external hire, negotiated a teaching load into his contract; he teaches Microelectronics every year. (He wrote the book.) He gets basically maximal course evaluations. I didn't know it was possible to get ratings that high, actually.