‘Robert’s Rules of Order and Why It Matters for Colleges and Universities Today’

Author of essay discusses the classic guide to running meetings -- and why he thinks higher education should study it.

September 23, 2021

Robert’s Rules of Order was first published in 1876. And today it continues to influence many organizations that use the book, including colleges, universities and academic organizations. Princeton University Press has just published the original book along with an essay by Christopher P. Loss, associate professor of education and history at Vanderbilt University, under a new title, Robert’s Rules of Order and Why It Matters for Colleges and Universities Today.

Loss responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: How did this book come about? How did you get interested in Robert’s Rules?

A: My first exposure to Robert’s Rules was in high school speech and debate. I’ve encountered it many, many times since, especially working in higher education, where it is frequently, if not always effectively, used. I’ve written about the history of higher education and democratic citizenship and done some work on the history of print culture and learning, but a study of Henry Martyn Robert and his rules didn’t occur to me until Peter Dougherty, of Princeton University Press, pitched me the idea. After doing some digging, learning about Robert and his family, and figuring out how I might connect Robert’s Rules to our current crisis of democracy, including the challenges now confronting American higher education, I agreed to take it on. I’m glad I did. The book combines my essay on the history of the rules and its place in American life with a copy of the original rules, published in February 1876. Only 4,000 copies of the first edition of Robert’s Rules were printed. After all these years, it’s wonderful to have the original text back in print and available to readers. It’s a fascinating work of real historic significance.

Q: How did Robert’s Rules reflect the history of American higher education, particularly in terms of organization?

A: At the time Robert’s Rules was published in 1876, American democracy was in trouble. The presidential election that year ended up a mess. Reconstruction was ending. Class strife and stratification were rising. Fierce struggles for immigrant, women’s and African Americans’ rights were being waged. And many Americans wondered whether political, economic and social justice were even possible anymore. It was, in other words, a time not unlike our own.

Major Henry Martyn Robert, of the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote his book to try and save democracy. He wasn’t so interested in formal political institutions, which seemed hopelessly corrupt, but in helping what he called “ordinary societies” -- and the ordinary people who participated in them -- learn about democratic deliberation. Today we know these societies as the associational or voluntary sector, and Robert’s intended audience was the hundreds of thousands of Americans who joined the voluntary sector in the late 19th century. Women’s clubs, fraternal organizations, ecclesiastical bodies, veterans’ groups, professional associations and, significantly, colleges and universities were just some of the organizations that turned to Robert’s Rules. Although there were other guides from which to choose, his offered the best road map to small-d democracy: the majority rules, the minority must be heard and respected, cooperation and decency must prevail, and the interests of the whole must outweigh those of any individual.

Q: You note that Robert’s Rules was embraced by American higher education at a time when “white male privilege” dominated student and faculty life. Why shouldn’t Robert’s Rules fade away with white male privilege?

A: American higher education in the late 19th century in many ways reflected the intellectual and social interests and sensibilities of white men like Henry Martyn Robert, West Point Class of 1857. Some would argue it still does. At the same time, the higher education sector was far more institutionally diverse than is often recognized and included liberal arts colleges and a mix of public as well as private Black-serving institutions and women’s colleges and normal schools that also used Robert’s Rules. For example, Howard University was an early adopter, and women’s organizations were and remained among Robert’s most devoted followers. American higher education, like our nation, had to work hard to realize its democratic potential in the 20th century, and it turns out that Robert’s Rules played a key, if surprising, role in that still-unfinished process.

Q: American higher education has changed dramatically in the years since then. Why use Robert’s Rules today?

A: There are times when structured deliberation of the sort that Robert’s Rules provides is not just helpful but, I would argue, necessary. Governing boards, faculty senates, department meetings, student government, clubs and organizations, for example, operate best when basic deliberative procedures are followed. I understand that some people find Robert’s Rules fussy and overly formalistic. But that’s only true when the rules are clumsily or sporadically deployed. A seasoned parliamentarian can stimulate participation and improve decision making in deliberative assemblies by ensuring that everyone is heard. If you don’t believe me, take a deep breath, close your eyes and think about the last faculty meeting you attended. Enough said.

Q: Many associate American campuses with uncivil debate. Could Robert’s Rules change that?

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A: Uncivil debate has always been part of campus life. There’s no getting around it: passions flare; shouting matches sometimes occur. Most of the time the disagreements are minor and the exchanges healthy -- a good sign that our colleges and universities are actually doing their job. But, lately, and again, this isn’t new, some of these protests and hecklers’ vetoes have become so hostile that they silence speech altogether and thus imperil the exercise of freedom of thought that is central to the academic enterprise. All ideas should be welcome, even unorthodox ones, and put to the test in the court of informed, fact-based, mutually respectful deliberation. Given the shaky ground of our democratic institutions and current challenges to scientific authority, I think higher education has an obligation to be far more intentional about modeling civil discourse and upholding democratic norms and practices on a day-to-day basis. In the aftermath of Jan. 6 and the continuing challenges of the pandemic, it’s never been more important.

That said, Robert’s Rules can neither heal our polarized politics nor guarantee that common decency and mutual respect will always prevail on our campuses. That will take a lot more than reading Robert’s Rules. It will require a renewed commitment to our nation’s democratic principles -- and to one another -- to solve all the problems that now confront us.

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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