Robert’s Rules Are a Means, Not an End

You know what’s fun?  Robert’s Rules of Order.  Designed to provide a fair and consistent procedure for running meetings, they are so complex/byzantine that they are often either only informally observed or they require a parliamentarian on hand to resolve disputes.  In academic meetings, one of the (presumably) unintended consequences of their adoption is that colleagues who are particularly adept at such procedures can derail a meeting, or at least an item of business, regardless of its merits, simply by outfoxing less experienced colleagues on procedural grounds.  Good times.

One of the recurring themes of The Wire’s first three seasons was the effort by Stringer Bell to professionalize Avon Barksdale’s highly successful gang of drug-dealers.  Bell took college courses in economics and in business, worked with real estate developers and politicians, urged a focus on product and flexible delivery rather than muscle, and so forth.  He also made an effort to have gang meetings run more fairly and professionally, according to Robert’s Rules of Order (the clip has some cursing):

The clip suggests how following Robert’s Rules can provide a saner, easier-to-follow conversation.  (I’ll take up Bell’s outburst in a minute.)  Familiarizing yourself with the basics of Robert’s Rules doesn’t take too long, and there are a variety of online resources available to you:

  • A summary version of Robert’s Rules, along with a table of motions that helpfully distinguishes “what you want to do” and “what you should say.”
  • Survival Tips on Robert’s Rules” proposes that “We must learn to run a meeting without victimizing the audience; but more importantly, without being victimized by individuals who are armed with parliamentary procedure and a personal agenda.”  Of course, there’s a page about “Using the 6 Steps to Get Your Way,” which seems a bit shady.
  • Many faculty senates, congresses, or assemblies provide guidance in Robert’s Rules–check and see if your institution does, because they may have a special variation.

Turning back to the clip for a second: At the end of the meeting, Stringer Bell screams at Pooh for suggesting that the gang was going to look soft, and when the parliamentarian reminds Bell that Pooh did have the floor, Stringer angrily dismisses the point as beneath contempt.  A few points:

  • ProfHacker does not endorse cursing angrily at colleagues, nor throwing chairs.
  • Narrowly speaking, Stringer may have a procedural point: Once a body has taken a decision, someone on the losing side can’t try to re-open the question at the same meeting.
  • More generally, though, Bell understands the importance of being in charge of a meeting, and not letting it devolve into an endless re-hashing of something that’s already been decided, even if that point is controversial.  Everyone has things to do, and discussions without a clear goal won’t help get those things accomplished.  (Merlin Mann sometimes describes this as being the parent, or at least the adult, in the room.)

The procedural mastermind who thwarts progress, or just the will of the body, for unreasonable motives needs a couple of things to flourish: silence from colleagues (implies tacit consent) and/or a chair who’s afraid to preempt or thwart such behavior.  A meeting is an extremely expensive proposition, if you take seriously the time of the people involved.  When faculty turn such meetings into assertions of their will, it devalues both the time of their colleagues and the notion of shared governance.

Image of stormtrooper on top of Robert’s Rules by flickr user Buffy.tws / CC licensed

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