Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Committee Creep

This probably happens almost everywhere, but I’m noticing it more here lately.

Committees are supposed to come in two flavors: ‘standing’ and ‘ad hoc.’ (The same is supposed to hold true for subcommittees.) Standing committees exist for their own sake, and they’re built for permanence. Locally, for example, the curriculum committee is a standing committee. It isn’t going anywhere, since nobody anticipates abandoning curriculum. Standing committees typically have membership based on ‘representation’ of various parts of the college, with the idea that every affected area should have the opportunity for input.

The strength of a standing committee is typically a relatively clear charge, and a relatively clear place in the college. We know what the curriculum committee is supposed to do, where it ‘reports out,’ what its deadlines are, and where it’s supposed to get its membership. The weakness is that long-standing committees are subject to capture by a few strong personalities who make them into their personal fiefdoms. When a committee has a chair-for-life, it’s unlikely not to fall victim to certain predictable pathologies.

Ad hoc committees, as the name implies, are constituted to address a particular issue. In the best cases, the issues they address are temporary, so the committee can dissolve itself when the issue passes. Self-studies are like that, and so are groups to address, say, the design of a new building. Once the visiting team has left or the building has opened, the committee has lost its reason for being and can disband. In my very limited observation, ad hoc committees tend to be far more effective than standing committees, if only because they’re more concerned with problem-solving than with representation. Of course, your mileage may vary.

Then there’s the weird third category. These are committees that are formed to address ongoing concerns, but that aren’t given ‘standing committee’ status. Locally, an example might be a committee within the English department that addresses issues with developmental (remedial) English courses. I don’t expect remediation to go away anytime soon, but the committee’s focus is too narrow to warrant ‘standing’ status. Instead, it’s a sort of hybrid.

Hybrid committees come from every-which-where, and frequently bump into each other as they (inevitably) recognize that their issues overlap with other areas of the college. To stick with the remedial English example, it didn’t take them long to figure out that they needed to address ESL, ADA/Learning Disabilities, registration, Academic Standards, developmental math, high school outreach, new student orientation, and so on. And their forays afield inevitably bring cries of anxiety from other committees and areas of the college, each jealous of its own autonomy.

Worse, some of these hybrid committees have been supported with (limited) release time at their formation, out of a sincere sense that their initial charge was important. So folding committees into each other, or disbanding those that have outlived their usefulness, becomes a collective bargaining issue. (“Why are you taking away my release time?” As if the release time belonged to the person, rather than the position.) The easy response to inequities is usually to bring up the lower party, which involves…wait for it…creating even more committees with even more release time, so nobody gets more than anybody else.

(The more difficult response is to simply shut down or consolidate the past-their-prime committees, and use the freed-up resources to address other issues. It’s the right budgetary move, but the internal politics are often bloody. Folks who lose their sinecures can be very quick to put the worst possible light on any change.)

I’m beginning to suspect that part of the reason so many admins like to do reorganizations is that they’re often the only politically-palatable way to put zombie committees out of their misery. Pick on one or two committees, and you have an anti-(fill in the blank) agenda. Pick on a dozen and start a few new ones, and you’re just doing another re-org. I’m not a fan of re-orgs generally, but they can serve a purpose.

Committee creep – both the Incredible Growing Mission and the sheer number of committees -- is insidious, and remarkably hard to stop.

Wise and worldly readers – has your college or organization found a sustainable way to keep committees reasonably close to their purposes?

What a coincidence...I'm actually dealing with this same problem.

I'm an officer in my professional society. We have several standing committees and many more ad-hocs (I'm chair of one of the ad-hocs, and also tend to stick my nose into other areas). Committee membership is uncompensated, so there are no battles about release time.

However, everything else you describe still happens: zombie committees that never do anything, "captured" committees, committes with chairs in office ten years or more, overlapping jurisdictions, the whole shebang. (In fact, my own committee has encroached on the turf of several zombie committees, simply because the work was just sitting there.)

I think committees simply have to be subject to sunset rules. Reorganizations are an informal sunset mechanism, but something more formal would also work. Otherwise, you're stuck with either awful internal politics or 20 committees doing the work of 5, just as you note.
People get release time for committee work? Seriously? I totally work at the wrong place.

That said, my place doesn't really have this problem, in part because people don't get rewarded really at all for service. When this problem does happen, though, I think it does so at first because the committee that should be handling the work is dysfunctional. Example: in my department, there would be no "remedial reading" committee, because that would fall under the duties of the writing instruction program standing committee, which handles all remedial stuff, as well as stuff related to any non-literature courses. This committee can do all of this because our writing program director, who chairs the standing committee, is ridiculously efficient, does not hold meetings that run longer than an hour, and under normal circumstances, holds no more than one meeting a month. The same is true for the curriculum committee in my department, which is incredibly efficient. Make your standing committees run well, and you don't need the ad hoc hybrids. That's all I can come up with anyway.
The only long-running ad hoc committees I can think of (college wide) are chaired by an administrator. One of our major standing committees has a mandatory rotation (term limits) so none of the problems you cite apply there. Different ones apply instead.

All committees are required to submit minutes and a report at the end of the year. If anyone cares, that is the time to find out if you still need that committee or need to find different people to serve on it. All ad hoc committees are time limited and must be recreated each year, which means some problems can simply be solved by passive agression.

The solution to problems with release time rests at your level. If the assignment is to solve X problem in Y time, it either gets done (so the job is over) or it doesn't (so someone else needs to be brought in who can do it).
I was on a committee which I *think* was an ad-hoc committee, and it was one of the things that I hated most passionately about my last job.

- Capture by a strong personality who couldn't run a meeting if hir life depended on it? Check.

- Unclear charge from above? Check.

- Piss-poor attendance? Check. (I remember many, many meetings in which "important" things were to be decided, and out of 10 (?) members, 3 of us were there.)

- Inability to ever finish any work? Check.

Oddly, I don't think we had much of the overlap problem, but that's maybe the ONLY dysfunction that the group didn't suffer.

(My entire time at that job, more than 5 years, and the group never did come up with the guidelines that were allegedly its FIRST order of business. Last I heard, maybe a year later?, still hadn't happened.)
I still remember with great fondness the "how to run or participate in a meeting" training I took. 1/2 hour that made me just massively more effective.

Might be a way out of ad-hoc hell; if people realize the committee isn't capable of running well, they might push you to do something.
In my college, we have sunset dates for ad-hoc groups.
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