Making Meetings Less Miserable

You didn't get a Ph.D. to sit in committee meetings, but they are a fact of life in academe. Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra provide tips for ensuring that yours are well worth having.

April 14, 2016
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It has been said that the only things certain in life are death and taxes. We would like to add meetings to the list. It is almost axiomatic that faculty members abhor meetings.

One of our colleagues has on her office door the classic New Yorker cartoon depicting a businessman on the phone saying, “How about never -- is never good for you?” Another colleague admits to using the Doodle Polls scheduling app to make himself free as a bird -- whenever no one else is. And that is not surprising. One study shows that faculty members spend 17 percent of their workweek in meetings. Another finds that, at any given time, 35 percent of academics serve on five or more committees.

We write this essay because, if we value our academic freedom and faculty self-governance, at least some academic meetings are well worth having. What follows is some advice to make the most productive use of your and your colleagues’ time at those meetings.

We take our essay title from an associate professor’s comment during a series of focus groups that we conducted on faculty work-life balance at our university. It is a common sentiment. Most new professors anticipate a professional life filled with student engagement and making new research discoveries. But, as one of our participants pointed out, “Academia is a whole series of bait and switch. You go to grad school because you are good in college classes and then have to switch and write a dissertation …. When you get good, you are asked to do service.”

The most precious resource that faculty members have is their time, yet self-governance is also a precious communal resource that we don’t often recognize. Committees, task forces and meetings can be a crucially important part of our work, especially at colleges and universities that depend upon faculty self-governance. Sadly, tenure and promotion criteria, which often value only research productivity and teaching, create a perverse incentive to shirk on service work. But the potential costs are high, with a withdrawal of faculty involvement and the consolidation of decision making at the upper levels. That makes it vital to ensure that academic meetings are productive and respectful of faculty time. (For some deliciously snarky pushback from faculty on bad meetings, see here.)

The midcareer and senior faculty with whom we spoke lamented not just the waste of their time in poorly run meetings but also their own lack of knowledge about how to run meetings when they first moved into leadership positions. A clear message coming out of those discussions with faculty members was the need for administrative skill development. Since then, our university has begun providing training in such skills for new department chairs through the LEAD program (Leadership Enhancement for Academic Departments). In addition, our faculty development and workplace learning centers now team up to provide a popular seminar for faculty and staff called “Running Effective Meetings.”

Although faculty members may feel unprepared to lead meetings, many are already well versed in the art of leading a class discussion. Despite a few key differences, a well-run meeting shares many similarities with the active-learning-oriented classroom. In their book, Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators, Kathryn Parker Boudett and Elizabeth A. City, two scholars from the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, argue just this.

To make academic meetings more productive and effective, we provide a number of tips based on discussions with faculty members, advice from our campus centers (TEFD and WLD), and the larger research literature on meeting efficacy.

Is the meeting necessary? First, assess whether a meeting is the best venue in which to respond to the perceived need. Can you articulate the goal of the meeting in a sentence? If you merely need to give a series of announcements, a meeting is an inappropriate venue. A mass email or newsletter distribution is a better approach.

Next, do you expect the meeting to end in some final actionable objectives? If yes, then ask yourself: Can I achieve these goals just as easily with a phone call? Or would a series of one-on-one meetings be more effective? Canceling meetings that have no clear purpose or definable end goal -- or not scheduling them in the first place -- will make you many friends.

Premeeting preparation. To avoid wasting your colleagues’ time with yet another insufferable meeting, you must invest a significant amount of your own time up front. Much like prepping for a class, you need a well-thought-out facilitation plan. That plan is the meeting agenda.

Agenda items are most effective when framed as questions to be answered by the group rather than general topics. Ideally you will indicate an estimated time to be spent on each item. If this is too much structure for you, you should at least indicate an end time for the meeting.

Meetings that are too long encourage rambling and tangential discussion. Some private sector organizations encourage the 15-minute meeting or the standing meeting for this reason. Generally speaking, most meetings should not exceed 1.5 hours, and ideally last less than an hour.

Send the agenda out in advance and invite additional items if applicable. If you can decenter yourself as the meeting leader and assign each item to someone else, so much the better. If you have material you would like members to read prior to the meeting, send it out well in advance of the meeting (we recommend at least 72 hours) along with the final agenda document.

Facilitation. It can be difficult to both facilitate a meeting and take useful notes. If it is a high-stakes meeting, consider asking someone else from the group to take notes. At the end of each agenda item discussion, summarize what was decided and verify with the group before recording it and moving on. If an item proves to be more complex than anticipated and a decision cannot be reached, it is often best for you to intervene and suggest tabling the item for future discussion, enabling you to move on to the next item.

One of the down sides to meeting-driven decision making is that it can favor those with the loudest voices yet not necessarily the best ideas. To offset that, you can ask attendees to also send some brief written responses to the agenda items in advance of the meeting.

Another approach is to use techniques like brainswarming. Often you will need to channel your small-group classroom discussion skills to bring out engagement from more quiet members. Ego and dominance displays are inevitable among some faculty members, and it is important to intervene proactively to keep monopolizers, skeptics, snipers and distractors from derailing your meeting. Useful tips for how to deal with these four personas can be found here. Voting on important decisions is one clear way of ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard and helps create more democratic forms of governance.

Meeting in groups larger than eight to 10 people tends to be more difficult to manage and will often require you to draw from strategies like small-group breakout sessions that are successfully used in the classroom. People commonly apply Robert’s Rules of Order at larger meetings, like departmental meetings. These 19th-century parliamentary rules of engagement are still surprisingly effective and help meetings move efficiently toward a common goal if practiced properly. (It took three years of faculty meetings before assistant professors in one department realized they were not the brilliant invention of their own colleague named Robert.) Although many faculty members dislike the formality of Robert’s Rules, here is one gem that bears repeating: “No member can speak a second time to a question as long as any member desires to speak who has not spoken to the question” (Article VII Debate).

At the end of the meeting, have the group draw up a list of actionable tasks, along with the name of each member who will carry out the task. Afterward, send the group a summary of the meeting decisions and assignments.

We all secretly hope that our students leave our classrooms energized and inspired. While it’s perhaps delusional to hope that our colleagues will walk out of meetings feeling the same way, we have synthesized some important practices here that will put their time to good use.

All this said, and beyond all the strategies that we’ve enumerated, the faculty members invited to the meeting must, first and foremost, feel invested. When faculty committee recommendations are ignored, or a small cabal makes decisions and simply announces them at the meeting, faculty cynicism will fester. To lead effective meetings, your most important task will be to communicate to faculty members that their deliberations will further a common goal and influence the outcomes that they care about.


Jennifer Lundquist is associate dean of research and faculty development and a professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Joya Misra is professor of sociology and public policy at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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