Dither and Delay: Personalities of Faculty Committees


I was elected to my first academic committee when I was still in graduate school. It was an ad hoc committee, and my presence on it marked the first time that I had held elected office since the fifth grade, when, thanks to a combination of savvy electioneering and ballot fraud, I won the post of "treasurer" of my class for the month of January 1971. Back in 1971, I had no budget; in 1988, by contrast, three other graduate students and I were charged with disposing of more than $125,000 in fellowship funds to the graduate students in English at the University of Virginia.

Some of the money -- $25,000 -- had come, incredibly enough, from the donations of faculty members and graduate students themselves. The other $100,000 had been volunteered by an exceptionally benevolent Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Starting with stone soup, it seemed, we had come up with the possibility of 25 awards of $5,000 each. The only problem with the unprecedented windfall was that no one had any idea how to administer it; there wasn't even agreement on who would be eligible for the money. Perhaps fifth-year students who'd completed all their work on time (through their oral exams), but who still had to work part time (while writing their dissertations) to supplement the $5,500 per year they earned as teaching assistants? At that time, Virginia didn't grant tuition waivers for teaching assistants, so maybe the grants should go only to students who'd been paying high out-of-state tuition for years? But then, what about students who'd faced catastrophic health costs? What about students with burdensome loans acquired in their undergraduate years?

My committee, then, was elected to decide the issue. Unfortunately, we did more to torpedo the enterprise than any four gremlins could have done to take down an airplane. But what I learned on that committee -- what I learned about academic committees -- has served me well for more than a decade in academe.

The first problem was that, even after the committee was elected, it wasn't sure what its mandate was. That surprised me. I argued that we were elected simply and solely to disburse fellowships, and I advocated earmarking the money for students at or near the dissertation stage, on the grounds that they had the deepest obligations to the department and vice versa. My arguments did not carry the day; on the contrary, I found myself losing one three-to-one vote after another.

Having rejected my suggestion, the committee decided to canvass the graduate students to see what they wanted to do with the money. The results of the poll were ambiguous: Students in the early stages of the program saw themselves as the neediest bunch, while students in other stages came to the same conclusion about themselves. So then the committee decided to canvass the students again, this time using a questionnaire with a multiple-choice format. The results were still ambiguous. So the committee decided to make the fellowships contingent on individual applications: Each student, whether in the M.A., M.F.A., or Ph.D. program, was asked to submit a form to our committee, detailing his or her history of past aid, current student-loan indebtedness, and number of hours per week spent in part-time jobs. The results of this byzantine, intrusive, and controversial application process were ... well, ambiguous.

The committee next decided that rather than grant large fellowships to two dozen students, we would make three categories of awards, based on an assessment of each student's indebtedness and work schedule. To be as inclusive as possible in a program of 300 students, the committee designated award amounts of $1,000, $500, and $250. That represented the last of the three-to-one votes I lost.

A few days later, when our indecisive decisions were announced, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences was on the phone to me, furiously demanding to know why the hell we had scattered a vast sum of fellowship money to the winds. I decided, privately, that I had been the lone authoritarian on a committee of procedural democrats so pure in motive that they could not take a step for fear of treading on a living being.

But this is not just a story of jejune graduate students cowed into submission by a six-figure sum. In my more recent professional life, the same pattern has too often been followed by academic committees -- regardless of whether they are composed of junior or senior faculty members, postmodernists or neomedievalists, socialists or libertarians. To this day, time and again, I find myself on committees whose purposes become progressively unclear to the committee members themselves, whereupon more committee meetings are called to (re)determine the direction of future committee meetings. How, I've wondered, can reasonably intelligent people willingly subject themselves to this?

To try to answer that, I've begun to analyze the peculiar academic aversion to decision making, and I have come up with an interim list of four personality types among faculty members who are sure to sandbag any decent committee. Only one of those is actively malevolent: the person who sits silently through a two-hour meeting, and then, as everyone is getting up to leave, delivers himself or herself of a single, orotund proclamation that effectively unravels whatever fragile consensus has hitherto been achieved.

The second type is the person who cannot recall, from meeting to meeting, what has previously been agreed upon. That type is the natural prey of the first type, who exploits the second person's spotty memory in such a way as to revivify tangential questions and side issues that were left for dead six weeks earlier.

The third faculty type is the advocate of multiplicity, who, after three months of deliberation, suggests that it might be a good idea to submit to the provost two strategic plans, or maybe even three, so as not to close down viable options (as if one plan weren't enough fodder for further administrative caviling down the line).

And the fourth type is the benign cousin of the first, who, just as the penultimate draft proposal has been circulated to all committee members (and maybe a friendly dean or two), pipes up and says, "You know, I've had very serious misgivings about this enterprise from the start ... and frankly, I'm not even sure we should be drafting a proposal at all."

When person three gets together with person four, watch out: Within the hour, they'll have suggested recanvassing all living faculty members and every alumna and alumnus since 1981, whereupon person number one will end the meeting by deftly shredding what remains of the day's agenda. Lest you think I exaggerate, look deeply into your hearts -- and your curriculum. There you'll find last year's innovations sitting cheek by jowl with unsatisfactory curricular compromises struck in the mid-1970s. Should you want to try to get the house in order, why, then, just appoint another committee.

Don't get me wrong: I have occasionally been so lucky as to sit on focused, determined committees that have actually produced specific proposals. (In fact, the experience has been so rare and gratifying that I've forgotten what happened to our proposals after they were buried by more-nebulous committees at higher levels of administration.) And, loath though I am to admit it in public, my judgment about matters academic is not always correct; I have actually been swayed by cogent arguments from committee members with whom I usually disagree.

At a time when the ideal of faculty governance is honored by administrators and trustees chiefly in the breach, faculty members can ill afford committees that dither and delay and wind up looking like tweedy versions of "Dilbert." Since it is probably contrary to the spirit of academic freedom to suggest that my four personality types be barred from all campus committees, it may make sense here to model ourselves, in this if in nothing else, on Congressional committees. That means agreeing ahead of time on the committee's mandate and goals -- perhaps by setting out the committee's charge, scope, and definition in writing, and asking all committee members to brook no meta-dissent that effectively unravels the committee's reason for being. It also means agreeing to write one proposal -- not two or four or five -- with a clear sense of audience and a reasonable timetable and a suggested budget for putting recommendations into effect. And it means -- perhaps most important of all -- that when the committee comes to conclusions that a minority of members cannot in good conscience support, such members should be neither silenced nor allowed to keep the jury in session indefinitely. Instead, they should be encouraged to write a minority report.

It may never be possible to make academic committee work enjoyable, but it may be possible to make the work meaningful. And, if faculty members truly want to keep faculty governance in faculty hands, it surely behooves us to demonstrate -- to administrators, to trustees, and to each other -- that we can govern ourselves fairly and competently. Even in a committee.

Michael Berube is a professor of English and director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Section: Opinion & Arts
Page: A48

© 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education