Embracing Governance — and Efficiency

February 12, 2017

No university, to my knowledge, bestows an award for "most outstanding committee of the year" — but maybe we should. Much as it is common to lament the burdens of committee work, the often tedious proceedings, and the teapot dramatics that can ensue over minor matters, there is no question faculty committees are vital to the day-to-day and long-term progress of any higher-education institution. Also, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous aphorism about democracy: The only thing worse than a campus full of committees is one with none. If all decisions, great and small, were made by empowered individuals, then the intellectual community that a campus is supposed to be would breathe its last.

But that doesn’t mean that all faculty committees are created equal and operate with equal alacrity and productivity. Gleaned from my 25 years of serving on committees (as member or chair), creating committees, and receiving reports, recommendations, and votes from them, I offer a checklist of best practices:

The purposes, coverage, and expectations of the committee should be clear to all the members. Sometimes the proliferation of committees has resulted in vagueness about what exactly their charge is, with an overlap of goals. Make sure, for example, the "curriculum committee," the "academic programs committee," and the "textbook committee" are not covering the same ground and that their tasks are both definite and defined.

Set a timetable for resolution of matters. A committee is not a philosophical-discussion society. It is worthwhile to seek out information and hear perspectives from everyone. But for almost any issue there must be a deadline of some consequence, and the committee members should be aware of it and (ideally) buy in to its actualization.

Committees should be democratic without being anarchic. We have all been on faculty committees where one person is very passionate about an issue but feels somehow that a Groundhog Day-like filibuster of repeating the same point over and over again is an appropriate rhetorical tactic. All members need to be heard out, and no one should be shut down, but the head of the committee must at some point be able to state, "Well, I think we have heard from everybody on every point; now let’s vote."

For almost any issue there must be a deadline of some consequence, and the committee members should be aware of it.
The chair of the committee should have the power and the will to finish projects. If possible, committees should be led by senior faculty members who take their charge and responsibilities seriously. For example, they need to have the political will and capital to allow the meeker and more junior members a say as much as the voluble silverbacks. They must also be able to sense when, as mentioned above, there is nothing new to discuss and it is time to call the question.

Stalwart committee service should be rewarded. The biggest complaint about committee work is that it is not valued. Yes, administrators cannot hand out gold medals for "least rancorous search-committee chairpersonship" or plaques for "fairest promotion-and-tenure-committee." However, we can give a little love and praise. I write thank-you notes for committee chairs at the end of the year, and we mention committee service prominently in promotion-and-tenure and annual reviews. I also specifically credit the originating committee when some new program or measure is a success. Ways to express gratitude officially should be put in place.

In all, faculty committees can be a fantastic way to thoroughly examine an issue through collaborative expertise. They can result in an optimal outcome, but only if administrators and faculty members agree to put an emphasis on both governance and efficiency and have faith that those are not contradictory values.

David D. Perlmutter is a professor in and dean of the College of Media & Communication at Texas Tech University. He writes the "Career Confidential" advice column for The Chronicle. His book, Promotion and Tenure Confidential, was published by Harvard University Press in 2010.