The Committee Is Now in Session

Carolyn Foster Segal considers -- with some fear -- the number of meetings professors must attend.

December 29, 2008

Ah, the end of the semester -- the students are wending their way home; the papers are finished; it’s time to tuck in the final grades and turn my thoughts to some serious writing of my own and to Christmas shopping. But wait -- first I have to attend the seven meetings scheduled for the coming week.

The purpose of a committee is to accomplish a task in a reasonable amount of time; the purpose of a faculty committee is to ensure the faculty’s participation in the governance of the college in meaningful ways. Why then, does the announcement of yet another meeting always make me think of Yeats’s “Second Coming” -- “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / . . . / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”?

It is no secret that faculty committee sessions involve a tremendous expense of spirit in a waste of shame (see Shakespeare’s Sonnet 129; the subject is purportedly lust, but it’s clear from the ending phrase -- “this hell” -- that Shakespeare was actually writing about a committee meeting). More prosaically, meetings eat up (precious) time and, most insidiously, they inspire only the Hydra-like creation of yet more meetings. Any one of dozens, no, hundreds, of books and blogs on time management will tell you that no meeting should last more than an hour and that the possibility of actual accomplishment is inversely proportionate to the number of people on the committee. Nevertheless, on (and on) we go, lumbering with our piles of “documents” from meeting room to meeting room.

Now perhaps you are thinking that, in fact, the end of the semester is the best time for meetings -- that way, they don’t interfere with our true work of teaching. The reality, however, is that a good week during the academic semester is one in which I have no more than three meetings. The reality is that afternoon classroom time feels like a reward for getting through the morning’s meetings, even if I did have to shortchange my prep time for the course. Faculty meetings, like the Broadway musical Cats, are indeed now and forever.

And so it is with some trepidation that I am considering the agendas for the coming week, for a proposal is coming, a proposal so momentous that it requires two preliminary meetings, one for the general faculty and the other for the members of my major committee with the members of one of the other three major committees -- and these, of course, are just for starters.

The subject of these meta-meetings is faculty governance. There is a concern that faculty governance needs to be strengthened, as indeed it does. There are concerns about faculty members fulfilling the criteria regarding service for tenure and promotion. And there is overwhelming agreement that the faculty workload at the college is onerous and overwhelming (two major causes seem to be the 4/4 day/evening/weekend teaching schedule and the time devoted to ... meetings).

Thus the goal is to make the system more efficient and effective and to ensure that all faculty members not only have a voice in the academy but a line for their résumés as well (take my slot, please). Some of us at my college have long argued for a restructuring of the governance system, along with the creation of a faculty senate. And there are all sorts of opportunities for actually meaningful service -- to God, country, family, department, campus community, and surrounding towns -- outside of faculty committees. But the proposal up for debate is as follows: the creation of 3 “subcommittees” for each of the 4 major committees, bringing the total number of new committees to 12.

Twelve new committees. One of the arguments for this plan is that it will lessen the workload of those already serving on committees. And yet, I cannot help but anticipate the following scenario involving a faculty member whom I will call Kay:

On Monday, Kay attends the first meeting of subcommittee 1 of Committee A.

On Tuesday, Kay, along with all the other members of subcommittees 1, 2 and 3 of Committee A, attends the regular weekly two-hour meeting of Committee A. It is agreed that subcommittees 1 and 2 will need to have a meeting and that Kay should also bring the topic to her department.

On Wednesday, after the meeting of subcommittees 1 and 2 of Committee A, Kay reports at her department meeting on an issue that the subcommittees and core committee of Committee A believe merits further discussion. Kay’s department chair, who is a member of the core committee of Committee B, informs the chair of Committee B that they need to have a meeting with Committee A.

On Thursday, Committee A, along with subcommittees 1 and 2 of Committee A, meets with the core committee of Committee B. The only things that they can agree on are that they need another meeting and that it is time to bring in at least one subcommittee of Committee C. In the meantime, the chair of A will prepare a statement for presentation at the next general faculty meeting. Kay promises to send out minutes of the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday meetings and to arrange a time for the extra meeting for the following week.

On Friday morning, Kay is still attempting to synchronize schedules. It is apparent that simply canceling all classes taught by full-time faculty members on Tuesday and Thursday from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. is not sufficient. She sends an e-mail on this subject to the chair of subcommittee 2 of Committee C; she copies this e-mail to the chairs of Committees A and B, all the members of her subcommittee, and the Registrar.

On Friday afternoon, Committee B holds a meeting of core committee and subcommittees B 1, 2, and 3, to discuss Thursday’s meeting. Kay and her fellow A subcommittee 1 members have been invited as special guests. The B subcommittees argue that they should have been included on Thursday and are reassured that they certainly will be from now on. The chair announces that both the provost and the registrar have requested emergency meetings for the following week and reminds Kay to take this information back to the chair of committee A.

By this time, as Kay notes, night has fallen. She is gathering up her papers when a member of subcommittee 2 of Committee B clears her throat and hesitantly says that she has one last small item of business: it seems that two members of a subcommittee of committee D told her that they’re working on an issue that belongs to A and B or possibly A and C ... The chair of committee B promises to take this up with the chairs of Committees A, C, and D, urges all members to check their e-mail on Saturday for times and locations of upcoming meetings, and asks who’s available for just a brief pre-planning meeting on Sunday.


Carolyn Foster Segal is associate professor of English at Cedar Crest College. Her previous column was about colleges that adopt the teaching of leadership as their mission.


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