University Committees’ Dramatis Personae

A little while ago I wrote about those committee members who are ubiquitous but who never would be missed. The cast of characters I described before were those prevalent on grant-giving committees, for instance, and so tended to be a bunch of relative strangers to each other. The dynamics of internal committees, where people tend to know one another in advance and the discussion is frequently less structured, are rather different. The bêtes noirs who turn up on such committees are also a little different, so here is Part 2 of those committee members whose paths you hope never to cross, those pertinent to internal (department, faculty or institution) committees; I’ve included ideas suggested in comments on the previous post, translating them into my own fantasy world.

You can take it as read that those familiar characters I discussed previously, Dr Bore and Dr Centre of Attention, will have made sure they have a place on this committee too. Whether or not Dr Mouse is present doesn’t matter, since they won’t be called upon to speak and they certainly won’t attempt to foist their views on the assembled company. Dr Underprepared is also unlikely to play more than a miniscule role since such people can rapidly be talked down, but Dr Not Listening will turn out to be just as aggravating here as on any other sort of committee, and just as capable of wasting everyone’s time. With luck, there will be a fair sprinkling of Angel committee members, but since readers of this post know the angels well, being on the same side as them, there is no need to discuss their admirable characteristics.

But before introducing the rest of my dramatis personae, I would like to set out the inverse square law of such committees which says that the amount of time spent discussing any topic is determined by an inverse square relation to the cost of completing the work. Thus the siting of a bicycle rack for half a dozen bikes will take an inordinately long time to resolve compared with, for instance, the whereabouts of the new Department of Paintballing. This is a sad fact of life which is encouraged by two newcomers:


You will all know Dr NIMBY. (S)he will be determined that what is being proposed has nothing to do with their own neck of the woods, whether or not there might be any justifiable cause for concern. Thus the reaction to a bicycle rack being somewhere in the vicinity of their office or department will be seen as a personal affront, and they will want to know

what have I done to deserve this?

They may attribute anything they don’t like to their non-inclusion in the 2001 RAE or that they went to the ‘wrong’ school, or anything else about which they harbour a chip on the shoulder. They can hold the floor for a surprisingly long length of time. On the other hand Dr DIMBY (Definitely In My Back Yard) sees anything – particularly a Department of Paintballing because its inherent multimillion pound cost means it must be valuable to be associated with – as a route to self-aggrandisement, where self extends to include their own department or faculty. Dr DIMBY, therefore, is perfectly capable of holding forth at length about the desirability of a particular course of action which, in everyone else’s eyes, would be an unmitigated disaster. The pair can unfortunately form an unholy alliance and derail all logical discussion if a committee has a particularly unfortunate membership.

Dr Philibuster (aka Dr Filibuster in the US) can talk the hindlegs off a donkey (don’t let them loose on disambiguation for instance), and will ensure that the length of their peroration is such as to make it impossible for any decision actually to be taken before the meeting has to draw to a close. The only way to deal with this committee member is to ensure that the chair’s eye is never upon them so, with luck, they are denied the opportunity to get on their soapbox. However, if a clique gets established within the committee determined to kill off some plan, it may be very hard to prevent them passing the baton to Dr Philibuster to fill in time and bring rational discussion to a close.

Dr Gourmand/ Hypoglycaemic

In the previous post it was suggested by Stephenemoss that Dr Gourmand was a frequent attendee on committees in France. I would propose the British pale imitation is Dr Hypoglycaemic, whose attention span and sweetness of temper falls of abruptly unless reinvigorated with a dose of doughnuts or other carbohydrate-packing at regular intervals. Woe betides the meeting that runs past the witching hour of lunch without platters of sandwiches appearing because this person’s irritability will soar rapidly. Dr Gourmand will need a great deal better sustenance than a mere sandwich to appease their irritability – preferably off site in some fancy establishment with, I suspect, a liberal dose of wine.

Mr/Ms/Mrs/Miss Pennypinching

The administration will ensure that at least one person in this category is present. It doesn’t matter how large – or small – the sum of money being discussed is, it’s too large for these people. They can always find answers for why the bike racks do not need a roof, or the lecture theatre a working projector. And, on a grander scale, the new Department ofPaintballing will find, if it’s not careful, that its floor area is 25% too small to accommodate all those avid researchers of paintball tactics, and keen students of paintball technologies will be deprived of suitable space to try out the latest weaponry.

Dr (or possibly Mr/Ms/Mrs/Miss) Jobsworth/Apparatchik

This was another committee member suggested on my previous post, introduced by Frank. This person is well up in any relevant (or almost relevant) statutes, laws or legal precedence and will introduce these arguments whenever given an opening. The first will complain that whatever they might be asked to do, it isn’t in their job description (which they also know by heart); the second will try to block any changes that aren’t explicitly allowed by some regulation or other. Imagination is not their strong suit and both of them are inherently conservative. Change is bad, either at the personal or institutional level.

Any of these miserable blighters may be kept in check by the well-prepared and possibly brutal, or at least brusque, chair. However I will reserve discussions of the various species of chairs – some of which are at least as bad as the committee members I have introduced – for a later day. They might include the following:

The Effective Chair (you wish)
The Waffling Chair
The Impatient Chair
The Benevolent Dictator Chair

You can probably add more to this brief list!

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7 Responses to University Committees’ Dramatis Personae

  1. ricardipus says:

    Excellent post! I recognize some of these characters. In particular a variant of Dr. Gourmand – the one that will always show up to a meeting if lunch is provided, regardless of the topic of discussion.

    I think the “Passive-Agressive Chair” would be a good addition to the chairs’ list – the one that gets all huffy and infuriated about things, rants about how they’re going to send an email blah blah blah and then retreats when faced with the object of their wrath, to grumble about it behind their office door and ultimately do nothing about it. Kind of a variant of your “Waffling Chair” I guess.

    As for a Department of Paintballing – poor use of public funds though it may be, I can definitely see how this could have advantages. Particularly if senior scientific staff participate, and everyone gets to wear a balaclava. Imagine picking off the Egregiously Irritating Departmental Chair, right between the eyes, with no fear of retribution.

    Juvenile, me? Um… yes. But it would be really fun.

  2. We scored an outside official adjudicator for our last meeting – I gather there were a few ‘problems’ at the previous event (I wasn’t present).

    Result – a whole new constitution in an hour and a half flat 🙂 And everyone is still talking to everyone else!

    Now if only all meetings could be like this…….

    viv in nz

  3. how about the chairs who have one or a few “pets” whose input and opinions are favoured over all others, regardless of their pets’ expertise or relevance to the topic or decision at hand?

  4. KristiV says:

    I’m doomed to attend a very long curriculum meeting today, so this post makes me tremble in horror a bit. Micromanagement Chair is a subtype that I’ve encountered several times. Drs. Gourmand are quite plentiful in the US, where the “free foodELEVENTY!!111!!” behavior persists well into the stable finances years. At one of my former institutions, we used to say, regarding a particular Dr. Gourmand and the seminar cookies, that he always had one at bat, and several on deck: a baseball analogy for the large stack of biscuits he always grabbed and consumed.

    Mr./Ms. Pennypinching often treats departmental and institutional funds as if they’re his or her own hard-earned money. They can have meltdowns and outrage about the tiniest expenditures, e.g. “Oh noes, the graduate students lingered on Friday afternoon and drank the remaining crappy seminar wine! We ALWAYS pour the remainder back into the box of no-name vinegary plonk from whence it came!”

    Off topic re the paintball – several years ago, one of the medical students, who was destined for an ophthalmology residency, presented her summer research project, on eye injuries from paintballing. Apparently the standard size of paintballs in the US was exactly the same as a human eyeball, leading to nasty “replacement” situations in the orbit. The authors of the study proposed that standard paintball size should be changed, to lessen the chances of eyeball-replaced-by-paintball injuries. Of course, wearing proper eye protection would prevent that situation altogether, but here in the US we can’t always infringe upon the personal freedom to lose an eyeball.

    • stephenemoss says:

      As a researcher working in ophthalmology can I say that our science is always in need of fresh donor eyes, and that Health and Safety regs in the UK have essentially eliminated paint-balling enucleations. I hope that in the US there is always one staff member present at paintballing events who is suitably equipped with a container of 4% paraformaldehyde in PBS.

  5. csrster says:

    The Invisible Chair is one of the worst. He/she/it (it doesn’t matter which), while nominally chairing, will actually do nothing at all to steer the meeting and will allow anybody and everybody to waffle on endlessly without ever reaching a conclusion.