Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Ask the Administrator: The Curse of Meetings

In response to a call for questions, I got two variations on the same question. The variations were:

1. Why are there so many &*#()@) meetings?

2. What’s in it for me to do a good job at these meetings, if I don’t want to move to admin?

The quick answers are, respectively:

1. Faculty governance/shared governance/consensus

2. Intrinsic rewards!

Oscar Wilde once said that he would have been a socialist, but he liked to keep his evenings free. I’ve seen a similar phenomenon with faculty. They want input into key decisions, but they don’t want to be bothered with meetings. How, exactly, that’s supposed to be possible is left to the imagination.

Certainly, it would be easy to get rid of meetings if we simply let colleges run like businesses – get rid of such archaic holdovers as tenure and ‘shared governance,’ give the managers tools to actually manage, and treat the faculty as line staff. The proprietary at which I used to work was pretty much like that, and there weren’t all that many meetings. As a manager, I can say that this structure certainly has its virtues: merit pay systems allow distinctions between contributors and free-riders, dismissal for dismal performance wasn’t nearly the nightmare it is at a tenure-based institution, and meetings tended to be short. The downsides are obvious: the faculty was exhausted and alienated; low performance evaluations created no end of stress; stupid decisions frequently went uncaught; and the academic voice was generally subsumed to the financial. I was happy to escape to traditional higher ed, even with a lighter managerial toolbox. (Note to Cary Nelson: some of us don’t only care about enlarging our own power.)

In a college with something like faculty governance, meetings are the price paid.

That’s not to say that every meeting is strictly necessary, or well-run. (True example: I’ve been at meetings at which the committee spent 20 minutes proofreading the minutes of the previous meeting for grammar. The living envied the dead.) An astonishing number of intelligent, educated people don’t have the first clue how to run a meeting, so they just try to let forceful personalities talk themselves out, in a doomed conversational rope-a-dope.

(Keep in mind, too, that while faculty keeps to a 9-month campus calendar with breaks, administration runs 12 months without breaks. That means that committees that require a faculty presence, which is most of them, have to meet in a compressed schedule to get their work done. It’s frustrating on both sides, but any alternative would be measurably worse.)

What’s the incentive for a professor who doesn’t want to move into admin to step up and perform well at meetings and administrative functions? Not much, sadly, other than intrinsic rewards. If you take faculty governance seriously as a value in itself, of course, then strong faculty performance in these settings is critical. I guess the short term, individual payoff has to be intrinsic, but the long-term payoff might be something like preservation of faculty autonomy. Decisions are made by those who show up; if faculty consistently fail to show up, over time, managers will take over by default.

This week’s example would be a speaker I helped bring to campus. The chair of the department in whose area the speaker’s subject fell took exception to not having been asked permission. In my years here, that department hasn’t brought anybody. Nobody. Nada. Zip. If I wait for the faculty to step up, I’ll wait forever. Sometimes ‘goosing’ them with the spectre of active administration is precisely what’s needed to get them to do what they should have been doing in the first place. I endured the usual epithets (“bureaucratic meddling” “run like a business,” etc.), but it’s worth it. Now they’re planning some public programs to pre-empt me, and I’m happy as a clam.

Any organization that values participation sacrifices speed. If you don’t believe me, attend a meeting of your local school board or city council sometime. The trial-by-jury system, similarly, is staggeringly slow. By contrast, the military can make decisions on a dime, since it has a clearly defined top-down structure. If the grunt doesn’t like the call made by the brass, the grunt is invited to shut the hell up and do it anyway. Academia comes closer to a local school board or city council then to the military, and frankly, that’s part of its appeal. The cost is meetings.