Academics manage by meetings. Half of the day in the life of a department chair is spent in formal meetings (average length: 50 minutes), and another 22 percent in informal meetings. Thus, department chairs find themselves in meetings 70 percent of their day. For deans, the number of meetings exponentially rises, and I am afraid provosts live by meetings alone. Some universities proliferate so many committees that they have established a “committee on committees.” Faculty volunteer for or are assigned to a collection of committees and list them in their annual review as service. This pathology of listing misses the critical role faculty can play in governing campus policy and practices. As a dean I frequently found myself confounded and confused as to who governed and who appointed members to the dozens of faculty, department, college, university, and community committees. A comedian quipped, “A committee is a group that keeps minutes but loses hours.” My professional library still shelves self-help books such as Death by Meetings and Meetings, Bloody Meetings.
Now more than ever, universities need a fresh perspective. After 45 years in higher education (35 of them in academic administration), I assumed I effectively practiced the craft of meetings and committee work. Now I realize this is not the case! An old saying attributed to John Gardner posits, “Education is to professors as water is to goldfish. They swim in it but never think to study it.”
The role of faculty and campus government has changed dramatically over time. Many new and critical committees have emerged on campuses due to new trends, regulations, financial conditions, and unforeseen challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. Who would have predicted that in March 2020 faculty, with only days or a couple weeks’ notice, would have to flip their class from face-to-face to online? Today, we find essential committees governed via Zoom. As we respond to this so-called new normal, chairs must lead the way. As a former dean and department chair, I highly recommend David Farris’s Understanding University Committees as he researched and illuminated strategies to manage the morass of meetings academics live by.
Other scholars and practitioners speak about the leadership crisis in higher education at multiple levels, including faculty governance. With the vast majority of academic decisions in universities made at the department level, leadership at the committee level is critical. Unfortunately, faculty and administrators assume their committee roles without (1) any training on how to run an effective committee, (2) understanding the ambiguity and complexity of committees, (3) knowing appropriate methods of team decision-making, and (4) awareness of the actual cost of committee work. While academics value their autonomy, committee work shifts the responsibility from
The academic leader’s ultimate challenge is to create a dynamic collective culture—and not a collection of independent experts.
Committees, councils, and task forces are common in the academy, but teams are more than work groups. What is a team? How does it differ from a committee? Moreover, when should one expend extra time and energy to operate as a team? Too often, the choice between a working group and a team is neither recognized nor consciously made. Academics are accustomed to operating in institutions where individual accountability counts most. A working group relies primarily on these individual contributions of its members for group performance. The sum of the member’s individual efforts measures the outcome. This is why committees are more likely to perform as work groups—not teams—in colleges and universities. In contrast, a team strives for the synergistic achievement of its members working together. Ideally, teams require both individual and mutual accountability, a diversity of skills and perspectives, a set of well-understood common goals, and working through open discussion and consensual decision-making.
We tend to see committees as groups of faculty. Many may associate committees with teams, but I learned early in my consulting career that “groups” were not “teams.” Recently when I was conducting team building training for department chairs and deans at one of the largest research universities in the country, someone from the provost office flatly told me, “We don’t use the term teams on this campus.” As in this case, neither the university environment nor the practices of faculty encourage a culture conducive to teamwork. Ironically, while we talk about the importance of collegiality, the realities of institutions of higher education interfere with collaborative effort and teamwork. Current faculty governance policies and practices build barriers to effective teamwork. Subcultures built on traditions of autonomy, independence, and individual rewards render the building of an academic committee collectivity difficult if not impossible. Collective effort lacks a standard of value in the academy. External pressures add to the penchant for fragmentation. Lately, short-term gains seem more realistic than achieving long-term goals. Given the tension between faculty autonomy and committee collectivity, how can deans and chair move toward a collaborative culture? From my perspective, four factors help chairs build collaborative committees and teams: purposeful facilitative leadership; a commitment to foster teamwork; faculty and committee members who make common good the subject of collective dialog, inquiry, and decision-making; and assessment and reward provided to the team and not individuals.
In summary, academic teams do not just happen. Committees are groups, but groups are not necessarily teams. To what extent can committees develop as teams? Committees (teams) should serve issues that are complex, cross-functional, and requiring persistent attention. Ironically, most the challenges universities face today do not demand this level of commitment and attention. Your skill in team building, however, will make the difference between your committee and department functioning as a work group of autonomous individuals accidentally thrown together under a titular heading—or an effective productive collectivity of team members able to meet the challenge of the charge and commitment to community. Do you want to preside over a collection of colleagues or lead a college or department collectivity? Developing your committees and academic unit as teams requires more risks and obstacles, but in the end it presents more challenges and rewards.
Farris, D. A. (2020). Understanding university committees. Stylus Publications.
Walter H. Gmelch, PhD, is formerly the dean of the School of Education (2004–2013) and currently professor of leadership Studies at the University of San Francisco. Gmelch has been a consultant to over 150 universities; conducted research internationally and written extensively on the topics of leadership, team development, collegiality, conflict, and stress and time management; and published over 200 articles, 27 books and monographs, and numerous scholarly papers in national and international journals.
A version of this article previously appeared as the foreword to Understanding University Committees by David A. Farris. © 2020 Walt Gmelch and Stylus Publishing. All rights reserved.