Wednesday, December 06, 2006



In one of those wonderful moments of bloggy synchronicity, a fascinating thread has developed (see profgrrrrl, Maggie May, kfluff, and Culture Cat) on the relative burden on faculty of meetings.

As the thread has developed, it has become clear that local culture, rank, discipline, and various other variables all play roles in determining how many hours a month a given professor will spend in meetings. (From what I've heard, I'd also add minority status. In colleges with relatively low numbers of minority faculty, minority faculty often carry extra committee and student advisement burdens, relative to other faculty, since minority students seek them out for mentoring and committees seek them out for diversity. Given how little college service usually counts towards tenure, this is a real burden.)

As a veteran of meetings, I'll add that far too many people (faculty, chairs, and yes, deans) have absolutely no idea how to run an effective meeting. So the meetings run longer than they should and accomplish less than they should, thereby feeding the simmering resentment towards meetings generally. I've certainly endured my share of meetings in which the living envied the dead, but I've also been to some that actually energized me. In running my own, I try to steal from the most effective I've seen, to the extent that it fits my personality.

My personal hints for running effective faculty meetings:

- For the love of all that is holy and good, never, never, never have a faculty meeting without a printed agenda.

- Don't be afraid to move the agenda along. I never have a meeting with fewer than six items on the agenda, and I'm much more comfortable with ten or more. When all else fails, you can always cut short a digression with “let's continue this discussion off-line,” which is much more polite than just saying “put a sock in it” but still lets you move forward.

- Put 'informational' items before 'action' items on the agenda. You can blast through four or five information items in ten minutes or less. It sets a pace, feels like progress, and gives a common fact base for discussion.

- Include specific, quick items for praise whenever possible. “Congratulations to Diane for spearheading a successful symposium last month.” Again, it sets a tone, and it shows respect.

- Beware the open-ended question. Never ask “what do you think about...?” Instead, put a concrete proposal on the table and ask for specific objections. When they're voiced, ask for specific alternatives.

- Beware the temptation to blame everything on absent third parties. Why is enrollment down in program x? Because those lazy bastards in Admissions aren't marketing it right! That's easy when nobody from Admissions is in the room, since it lets everybody in the room off the hook. It's a variation on the old saw about the perfect being the enemy of the good. In the real world, resources are (and will always be) finite; agendas are (and will always be) conflicting and overlapping; and content matters. Get your own house in order before finding fault with others'.

- Gentle humor is your friend. Selective self-deprecation can also work, if you're adept.

- As with classroom discussions, quick summaries of windy comments can go a long way. “So what you're saying is...?” Don't be afraid to parse comments into the immediately-relevant and the for-another-time.

- FOLLOW UP. I always take questions at meetings, and usually some of them require an “I'll get back to you.” At the following meeting, answer the question – that is, get back to them -- in public. (I usually have an agenda item titled “items from last meeting” in which I answer each in sequence.) After seeing that cycle repeat a few times, some usually-discontented sorts figured out that they're actually being heard, which seemed to reduce their felt need to shout.

- Admit mistakes. I've done this a few times, and found that a moment's blow to my ego pays off handsomely over time in increased credibility. Besides, unacknowledged mistakes get interpreted as cover-ups, which are much worse. Better to just admit when you've dropped the ball.

- Set a civil-but-focused tone. A faculty meeting is not a group therapy session.

Meetings among administrators are different, since they're usually smaller, and usually more connected to our core job functions. Again, I've seen great and terrible and everything in between, but given smaller numbers and narrower focus, these can potentially be somewhat looser and still work. The key here is to make sure that problem-solving takes place in groups, and blame-assessing, if any, happens privately. If people around the table start trading blame, even implicitly, the meeting is already circling the drain.

Since there's a weird cultural taboo in academia against cutting anything short ever, blowhards get far too much slack to air their pet grievances. A good chair isn't afraid to cut off discussion. It's part of the role. Do it diplomatically, don't be arbitrary, but do it. Oddly, even some of the blowhards will respect you for it. A moment's awkwardness will spare hours of agony.

What tricks have you found for making meetings, well, not suck?

Having food that isn't loud and crunchy (eg, chips or carrots) helps.
Your suggestions for handling meetings effectively are great; I'd like to print them and pass them out at, well, meetings of course.

Then again, I've recently been told by our VP how no one cares about service so maybe I should just start skipping meetings.
From what I've read, apparently having Dean Dad in charge makes just about everything better. ;)

Honestly, I've worked in a number of organizations (with relatively low status - I just graduated from Small Liberal Arts College last May, so I'm just about to turn 22, but I've worked for four large companies and quite a few small ones), and especially at my current job, listening to you talk about what you do and what you wish other people would do makes me want to actually go back to school like I keep promising myself just so I can go work for you.

Our organization has wholeheartedly embraced the "big happy family" fallacy, to the extent of having every single person from our ... nineteen? ish? different departments, plus all of our residential clients (we do residential and outpatient drug treatment, plus gang intervention, youth counseling, employment counseling, and have special programs for youth, mothers, veterans, and a couple other groups that I'm blanking on) participate in a mandatory Secret Santa, which cannot in any way be broken up by unit (which would make more sense, be more ethical, involve less work for me, and be, you know, normal), because we're all such a big, happy, family that people who have no cause to know each other, including clients, should be forced to buy gifts for each other. *rubs her head in dismay* And nobody wants to hear otherwise because "that's the way we've always done it."

(One does note, however, that the people saying this are the people in management who are delegating the task away from themselves. The people who are on the recieving end - being assigned Secret Santa partners and told they must participate and can't do so only within their logical group have a tendency to offer strange looks and question one's familiarity with institutional history.)

Are you sure we can't woo you away from academia? You'd have a really nice office, and a grateful staff. *grins*
I just mused on this on my own blog, but I've noticed that few grad students have much experience with service or committee work until they get their first job. Do you think doctoral programs should encourage grad students to learn how to "do" service as much as we learn research and teaching? Or, I guess more to the point, it something that is even teachable, or is it inevitable that you learn on the job?
Firstly, great point about service obligations for minority faculty. It makes me cry how many times I've seen the "can't get good minority staff" line espoused by administrators who don't take any protective role over the service requests those staff then get. Burnout!

The meeting tips are great. I'd just add - picking up one of your points - that one difficult thing about academia is that many academics resist the very idea of anyone else controlling the context for a discussion, and so you always get blowback from the recalcitrants no matter how thoughtful or organised your process is. I think, like teaching, a lot of it comes down to confidence in taking charge of the situation - as you point out, it's possible to do that without being authoritarian, even if you will inevitably be read as authoritarian by some faculty.

Far worse to let the inmates run the asylum with 100 different kinds of craziness.
Excellent comments, as usual. One tip that I'd add would be to at times specifically ask people for their input. I've seen faculty meetings where a few people speak up about an issue quickly, and with fairly firm positions. This can have the effect of shutting off a discussion. It may be the case that there are many other faculty who don't share the opinion. So it's important to see that consensus really is consensus, and not just three or four people speaking confidently and acting as if everybody is agreeing with them.

To that end, if the meeting is small enough, I'll occasionally start a discussion of a proposal by going around the room in order and asking everyone to give their initial impression. I then try to quickly identify areas of agreement and propose that we not discuss those areas, and then move to spend the remaining time focusing on areas of disagreement.

One additional tip: I've found that an important part of setting the agenda is to be very clear what the goal of the discussion is. Are we in an initial brainstorming phase? Are we just giving input to me, or some other dean? Are we at a stage where the committee will need to make a final decision?

Finally, as you've suggested, I think it's helpful to end every discussion by not only summarizing, but stating clearly what the next steps are. (If there are no next steps, that's probably an indication that you shouldn't have just had the discussion.)
It's ridiculously simple, but I haveen't seen it yet: meetings should have a defined ending time, and that should be honored. You might miss an item or two in a meeting at the beginning, but once that norm is established, people at the meeting will tend to stay on track to help the meeting end at the defined ending point. At least that worked in the assessment meeting that I chaired.
The defined ending time is useful; you can give it an extra 5 minutes if you really are almost done with something, but there's a saying that nothing ever really gets done after the first hour of a regular meeting.
When I know the blowhards are in bloom, I try and use the going around the table as in: OK, positions in this are pretty well set, let's have everyone state their position for a minute or two and then we will vote.

I learned this last year when I was running APT meetings.
Great tips. Although my Dean does not need them (you could be describing his meetings), I mailed him a pointer to this thread so he would share it with the Dean he mentors and others in our organization.

My anti-suggestion:
Never allow any discussion of a topic after it has been voted on. Absent a motion to reconsider, it is out of order until you get to the "any other new business" agenda item.

I think I know why it happens, and I think the idea of "going around the table" is a way to avoid it by clarifying where the issue stands before it gets laid to rest by a vote.
What you have described here is nothing more than a good recipe for processing agenda items but not much else. However, to be fair I've been in lots of these and have even led a few. Your suggestions pretty much guarantee that important decisions will get made outside of the meeting, which defeats the purpose of having the meeting in the first place. But then that is by design isn't it ? Administrators love this approach.
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