Fear of Committee-ment

November 16, 2001

Question: My department at "Middlesex University" expects a great deal of committee service from its faculty. You won't be surprised, I'm sure, to hear that I'm untenured and want to make a good impression. And yet you, Ms. Mentor, have sometimes claimed that committees get mired in drooling and trivia. While I know that your wisdom is always perfect, I wonder how to reconcile your pearls with the bauble (tenure) dangled before me if I follow my department's wishes.

Answer: Ms. Mentor does not thoroughly disdain committee work. She knows that she would enjoy the literate and somber deliberations of, say, a Nobel Prize Committee, or the vicious wranglings of the Pulitzer Prize Committee. But she would shun the Council of Macon (585 A. D.), at which a committee of bishops allegedly debated whether women have souls.

Ms. Mentor sighs.

It is a melancholy truth that time lost to nonsensical or nonessential committees is gone forever. Ms. Mentor thinks about "Harry," an industrial chemist who toiled faithfully at his research, 9 to 5 every day, for some 20 years -- until the fateful moment when he became an academic. Suddenly he was attending daily meetings about equipment repair, overflowing wastebaskets, bylaws, curriculum changes, flowers, and human-subject rules -- although the only human subject he'd touched in the past 20 years had been his wife.

Harry found himself lobbied vociferously to give the Top Student Award to "Marvin," a ne'er-do-well perpetual student, because Marvin's mentor was a powerful professor before whom the others quailed. "And besides," Harry was told, "if we give his student the award, maybe the old goat will finally retire and we can have his lab space." Harry listened to vigorous debates about where to hold the dreaded annual banquet. He even survived a four-hour meeting about the wording of an urgent resolution to be sent to a smaller subcommittee to be revised before it was submitted to a council of deans, after which it would rise to a university-wide committee, and eventually land on the chancellor's desk, where it would languish for seven months.

"Why doesn't someone else take care of this stuff, the way they do in industry, so I can do my work?" Harry finally asked his dean, who told him, "We've always done it this way. Collective decision-making is the lifeblood of academia." Harry felt as if he'd been set upon by vampires.

But Harry was a full professor with tenure, who learned he could hide in his lab and say No. For nervous newer professors, committee burdens have been the ruin of many a poor girl or boy. "We need new blood" is chilling enough, but "We need a woman on this committee" or "This committee shouldn't be all-white" means that people of color, and women in nontraditional fields, are chronically pelted with committee assignments. "Louisa," a new African-American Ph.D., found herself on 18 committees in her first year at "Mega U." By the second, she'd fled to a small historically black college ("Here I'm not some kind of weird token").

Well, enough stories, Ms. Mentor, you're thinking: What about me?

And that is exactly what you should be thinking. Too many newish professors, especially women, are seduced into thinking that without them, committees will die, their sacred tasks undone. Committees need someone to show up and make the decisions seem important. And few women, even in these liberated days, can resist that siren call: "You are needed" (the academic equivalent of "You are loved").

(Yes, Ms. Mentor knows that men need love, too, but not in this month's column.)

But you, whatever your gender, must resist frittering time on things that do not really matter. Ms. Mentor is glad to know that during the attack on the World Trade Center, people grabbed their cell phones to say "Goodbye" and "I love you." They did not attempt to write one more memo.

Ms. Mentor urges you to think about what will make you happy and what will get you tenure (sometimes they are the same thing). Are your department's committee expectations written somewhere -- or are you relying on rumors from committee workhorses, people whose social lives revolve around meetings? What about the star profs who publish, do research, do outreach? Most departments have both, but the stars are rewarded with raises and prestige. If you want tenure, or if you want to move on to another job, reach for the stars as your role models.

Yet Ms. Mentor knows that you do need to be on committees -- to be a good department citizen, and to learn how the university works (few corporations are so arcane). The best committees, if you have a choice, have a finite task with a deadline. They meet infrequently, are publicly known and acclaimed, and include professors from other departments, so you'll get to know people.

The worst are standing department committees that meet every week, generate endless paperwork (minutes, plans, schemes), and will continue to do so, world without end. If they are also about salary recommendations, you can easily make enough enemies in six months to choke your possibilities for tenure forever.

Do not hesitate to ask for advice from your chair and from senior professors. Take them to lunch and ask them what committee work they did in their early years. See if they remember -- and if they don't, that will teach you about the importance of committees. Keep asking polite questions. People love parading what they know and advising the young, and often you'll pick up juicy bureaucratic gossip. (Really lurid scandals being rare in academia, most people have to settle for embezzlement or mild treachery.)

How can you escape being devoured by committees? Set aside specific planning and writing times (Mondays and Wednesdays, 3 p.m., say), and decline to meet during those hours. Do not cite family obligations, lest you look unprofessional. But Ms. Mentor will permit you to schedule medical appointments that sometimes conflict -- oh dear -- with going-nowhere committee meetings.

If all else fails, claim ignorance. For instance, you can't possibly be on the time-consuming awards committee if you don't yet know the faculty and their strengths. Some professors do indeed have administrative strengths. They are well-organized, precise, and eager to create new programs and structures. Ms. Mentor lauds them, and if you are one, you are a rare breed that should be honored and cultivated. But if you are the more usual sort of academic -- a lab rat, a library nerd -- you should be hoarding your time and spending it only on the best person in your untenured universe. Yourself.

Question: I'm at an elite Northeast university and just bought a big red pickup truck instead of a used Volvo. Should I kiss my hopes for tenure goodbye, or would Ms. Mentor prefer not to rule on such a trivial subject?

Answer: Yes.

SAGE READERS: Ms. Mentor's mailbag for the last month has been light, and epistles have been shorter than usual. Ms. Mentor reminds readers that she rarely answers letters personally, but always welcomes unusual queries and anecdotes. Anonymity is guaranteed. She writes this column during an anthrax scare, while viruses swirl about the Internet, gas masks are being touted, and millions are losing their low-wage jobs. It is sometimes difficult to think that the problems of little academic people amount to more than a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Evidently others share her more thoughtful views. Half a dozen people wrote to agree with Ms. Mentor 's last column, giving (according to one correspondent) "permission to step aside in the scramble to full professor." Another said that since September 11, "I, for one, am taking more time to smell the roses and be selective about what I choose to spend my time on."

A third correspondent perhaps said it best, writing that academic life demands that one "ponder what is truly of value to us and what we want to accomplish. Promotions are nice. ... But in the larger scheme of things, those strokes are buried with you. Whatever is permanent in one's academic history is likely to reside in the students (and their students and their students ...) and in the writing one leaves behind."

Ms. Mentor, who never leaves her ivory tower, channels her mail via Emily Toth in the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. Her Chronicle address is

Her views do not necessarily represent those of The Chronicle.

Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia, by Emily Toth, can be ordered from the University of Pennsylvania Press by calling (800) 445-9880 or from either of the on-line booksellers below.  Barnes & Noble