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.

I think it's important to distinguish between meetings in which one feels like one accomplishes something/has a voice and ones that merely give the appearance of shared governance with no substance behind that appearance. For example, I attended a meeting with my department and some administrators on Monday that left me entirely frustrated because, although there was the appearance of the administration caring about the topic under discussion because key people showed up for the meeting, the subtext of the meeting was, "we're humoring you and we're talking out of both sides of our mouths and, ultimately, we are going to run things like a business and nothing you say matters."

There is no intrinsic value in such meetings except for administrators who are covering their asses and pretending to attend to faculty concerns.

(woops! the above is very ranty and I apologize.)
I have to agree with Dr. Crazy. There seem to be an awful lot of meetings at my SLAC--involving junior faculty especially--that exist to support the illusion of faculty participation in governance. In reality, the administration here (with a handful of senior, noisy, and well-known people) run things behind the scenes. Blech.
Dr. Crazy -- you're dead-on target. Much of what passes for 'faculty governance' is a Potemkin thing, honoring participation without risking actual power-sharing. It's terribly frustrating, since (by definition) it's wasted time. I say, either embrace faculty governance and make everyone show up for meetings whenever they're needed (including the summer), or drop the charade altogether. The wimpy 'neither fish nor fowl' compromise that is far too common does no good.
What about general "kickoff" meetings? You know, the ones where the president and other administrators stand up and rattle off the accomplishments of the semester, and everyone applauds, when everyone knows all this information already because it was published no less that 537 times in the local papers, the student newspapers, online, and in the alumni magazine? What is the point of these, other than free food?
It's managers attempting to appear "Managerial." The cult of "leadership" is strong in America.

"Look, I'm doing something! I'm speechifying to my people! I'm useful! I'm talented! I'm a leader!"


As for kickoff meetings, they serve two functions.

First, the good reason: they ensure that no employee can claim they weren't told what was going on. Emails, newsletters, dancing bears, you can't count on any of them getting through ("My computer crashed/spam filter got it/hunters shot the bear"). If the employees attend a meeting where information is shared, they can't say they weren't told.

Second, the bad reason: it's a chance for managers to feel important.

Oh, how I hate the second reason.

Meetings are a good way to identify good management. Managers with heads out of their asses hold as few as possible, and you never leave them wondering why you attended. Bad ones hold lots of unnecessary meetings. (Or hold none at all and rule by fiat.)

As a non-academic, I find this topic amusing. Meetings are neither optional nor "power-sharing" exercises in the World-o-Business. You show up, they tell you what's what, they may ask your opinion on stuff (or not), you leave.

This stuff sounds more like local politics rather than business. Hm.
Harvey nailed it. One of my first moves, upon coming to my current employer, was to reduce the number of meetings within my own group; I couldn't imagine needing that many to get the work done, and it turned out that I was right. However, some of the folks who had originally wanted my job seized the opportunity to complain to the VP that I was shutting people out, acting autocratically, etc. The issue went away eventually, as the correctness of my call became obvious (if I may say so myself...), but it was an issue. CYA is a real motive.

Such a staggeringly small percentage of faculty read memos, emails, etc, that any asynchronous communication is simply futile. (I tried using 'read receipts' once, and got a less-than-10% response rate from faculty.) That may be a function of the advanced age of the professoriate here, or it may simply be an occupational hazard. Either way, I can't rely on less intrusive methods of communication to get a message out. If I could, I might be able to prune a few meetings.
The CC where I used to teach recently went through a vote of no confidence in the President (now gone with a hefty payoff). The complaints were dismissed my first year there as being from a small group of troublemakers and malcontents. My second year, I noticed that those troublemakers were also the same people who served on (sometimes multiple) governance committees, advised student clubs, and were the ONLY faculty that showed up to Foundation events that generally cost a pretty penny to attend.

The malcontents responded by really pushing for more and different faculty to step up to the plate. Some did. My third year, a year where faculty participation in governance was still pretty much led by the same voices, all of whom were by this time working close to 80 hours a week to document faculty concerns and prove that it was not just a small number of people who were unhappy, enough new faces, and some old, had taken on responsibilities on governance committees. They didn't like what they saw. They didn't like how they were treated. Many of the same people who felt that a small but vocal group had taken it upon itself to "decide for the rest of us" not only changed their minds, but also found after taking back the governance positions they'd avoided for so long, that they really were out of touch. The college is in fairly dire straits at the moment, but interdepartmental cooperation is much higher, as is cooperation between parts of the admin, faculty, and staff (a few more admin heads are expected to roll).
Intrinsic rewards, eh?

That takes the wind out of my sails. You were supposed to comfort me Dean Dad! You let me down.

Now I'm screwed!
Camicao -- sorry. You can always try to negotiate for release time, which can help with sanity, but the real career payoff to 'service' generally comes from opening up options. If you don't want those options open, then the payoff ain't much.

In fairness, my current school had a prof who retired recently who had been the go-to person for leading search committees for a long time, since she was so good at it. The benefit to her was that over the years, she had a major voice in choosing deans, vp's, faculty, etc., which she saw as a kind of self-preservation. So there's that.
My CC absolutely will not give release time and no one knows why.

The whole "shared governance thing" is wonderful if it works. Last spring, faculty was asked to help come up with a retention plan. Once it was drafted, the muckity-mucks completely gutted it. Then they browbeat anyone who had any criticisms about it at the follow-up meeting. It was passed by the president and board and now it's policy. Thanks so much for our input. Now leave me alone so I can teach. Put your next meeting on your Palm Pilot; I won't be there.
I'm a freak, I guess, because I don't mind meetings -- as long as they are held for a purpose. I go just bugshit, though, when we spend 20 minutes editing grammar. Gah!!!
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