No More Rambling On

September 28, 2011

About once a month, on scores of college and university campuses around the United States, dozens or hundreds of people mill into the auditorium, resigned to the fact that it's going to be a while. There is gavel-pounding. There is heated debate over comma vs. semicolon usage in biology department literature. The institution’s president is barraged with questions. And, yes, there are PowerPoint presentations.

Welcome to your average faculty senate meeting.

These mythic meetings can sometimes take on a life of their own, given the right set of ingredients (read: anything to do with politics, money or the word “cuts”). Some institutions have the drill down and can conduct a meeting in an hour. Some give themselves more time in case a senator decides to live up to the long-winded stereotype.

But at Syracuse University, Faculty Senate members have decided to put their collective foot down. This year, speakers will be limited to three minutes on any given issue, cutting down on the occasional back-and-forth debate or lengthy speech.

“It’s just a guideline that I intend to enforce, but I don’t intend to enforce it to the second,” says Ian MacInnes, the chair of the Faculty Senate's agenda committee. “What I’m trying to do is just make sure everyone is aware that we want to hear from a wide variety of voices, not just the same voices for a long period of time.”

MacInnes, also associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Information Studies, is quick to point out that he’s not trying to stymie debate. In fact, he’s encouraging more of it, he says.

My goal in my position is to have a good debate,” says MacInnes, who acts as meeting moderator. “I certainly would think that opening that up to lots of people would be more likely to achieve that.”

Robert’s Rules of Order, now in its 11th edition, is the how-to manual for any type of parliamentary meeting, and it is often the go-to for faculty senate meetings. According to Robert’s Rules, a member may speak twice on any debatable motion on the same day. Each time, the member may speak for up to 10 minutes.

But, says Daniel Seabold -- one of the authors of the latest iteration, Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, and a mathematics professor at Hofstra University -- any organization can tweak the default limits by adopting a special rule of order. Case in point: a maximum of three minutes per speech.

“I have never seen anyone at Hofstra try to hold the floor for ten minutes,” Seabold wrote in an e-mail. “And if faculty members did on a regular basis, I suspect we would adopt a special rule providing a lower limit.”

A quick survey of other institutions across the country reveals that, for the most part, the stereotypically talkative faculty senator isn’t as prevalent as one might think.

James Girard, Faculty Senate chair at American University, says that American, too, has the three-minute rule, but that he has never had to pull the plug on a speaker.

“Yes, we have colleagues who use more words than others, but that doesn't mean their input is any less important,” Girard, also a chemistry professor, wrote in an e-mail.

At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, speaking time limits are set up in advance of meetings with agenda items that are sure to get the blood flowing, according to W. Brian O’Connor, the Faculty Senate's presiding officer.

“This method does work -- we have had some particularly contentious meetings in the past few years including a vote of no confidence in the president and even he adhered to the rules and was good natured about it!” O’Connor, also a biology professor, wrote in an e-mail.

On top of set-in-stone rules is the ever-menacing peer pressure put on chatty senators. Thomas Breslin, the Faculty Senate chair at Florida International University, said via e-mail that this factor alone is a powerful tool.

“There is tremendous peer pressure to stay on point, be succinct, and not repeat oneself; as chair I endeavor to use that pressure to keep discussion moving and bring all with an opinion on a subject into the discussion before a question is called,” said Breslin, an international relations professor.

Finally, look out: at Florida International, all PowerPoint presentations are banned. Robert’s Rules didn’t account for that one.

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