Ideas for Professional Development

“Improving the Dreaded Academic Committee Meeting”

Stan Pelkey

Committee meetings can be a meaningful part of shared governance when both the meetings themselves and the overarching spirit of shared governance on a campus actually function well. But meetings are extremely frustrating when they are called too frequently, are poorly organized, focused, or chaired, or they do not lead to real results that improve academic and institutional life. Furthermore, unproductive meetings waste valuable time that could have been invested in research or creativity activity.

Here are a few ways to improve the “meeting culture” in your department, school, college, or campus:

  1. When you must call a meeting, or if there are certain meetings you are obligated to hold that you chair, be clear as to the purpose of the meeting, have a written agenda with a firm time for adjourning, and boldly stick to both the agenda and the time to conclude!
  2. Some colleagues come to committee meetings to talk and talk and talk. Sometimes they feel their ideas are never heard, so they take advantage of their “captive audience.” Other times, talkative colleagues simply hold excessively high opinions of themselves and their ideas. Excessive talking and debate can even be used to delay discussion and implementation of needed change. Whatever the reason, such behaviors frustrate you, me, and many of our other colleagues. If we’re going to meet, we want to actually accomplish something! Often we’re just waiting for someone to take control of the situation. Here’s one way to do that: use timings for each item on your agenda. This is very easy: For each agenda item, have a time limit in minutes during which that item may be discussed and acted upon. List the timings on the written agenda and have the times approved as part of the broader approval of the agenda. Then hold everyone—including yourself—accountable to those times. If you need more time for a particular item, take a vote to extend time. If the vote fails, move on and return to this point (if need be) at the next meeting! This is a method we used in meetings of the executive committee of the Western Michigan University chapter of the AAUP because of the sheer volume of work we had to accomplish at our weekly meetings. I took the practice with me to Roberts Wesleyan College and used it in large meetings over which I presided as Dean. The value of this practice became clear to others, who began using timings in their meetings. Some colleagues may not like your new “let’s get this done” approach, but others will be grateful for the improved meeting / time management.
  3. Consider having fewer face-to-face meetings and more virtual meetings. This may not work for meetings that follow strict procedural rules or that require a quorum (e.g., those meetings that deal with money or due process). But when possible, have one face-to-face meeting each semester to set out agenda items, then use email to hold discussions and to make decisions.
  4. Avoid holding meetings with large numbers of people for which the primary activity is copy editing. This is deadly! If a text needs to be prepared or edited, and you genuinely want to draw upon everyone’s perspective, request people send suggestions to you by email. Alternatively, move editing work to a subcommittee consisting of those who have proven skill with words.
  5. What if you are not the one calling or chairing meetings? You can still help to improve your “meeting culture” by holding others accountable for the use of their time and yours during meetings. When you have the opportunity to evaluate peers, department chairs, deans, and other administrators, provide feedback about how productive or unproductive the meetings are that they chair. The ability to run a focused and productive meeting is a skill that can be developed. For the sake of your time and your colleagues’ time, expect well-run meetings.
  6. Lastly, hold your peers accountable to do their share of committee work! When our peers do not attend committee meetings to which they are assigned, or when they refuse to volunteer occasionally for ad hoc assignments, they are really making you subsidize their research or creative productivity with your valuable time for research or creative activity.

We all want to be active and successful scholars and teachers: the burdens of shared governance must be distributed evenly at every level of an institution, and the inevitable meetings must be productive!

(Originally posted on November 3, 2015.)