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?