I have been kicking around the university scene so long that I forget how mysterious some parts of my life may seem to those just starting out. I was rather startled to be asked by a student over dinner the other week what committee chairs do, yet it is a perfectly reasonable, indeed rather sensible, question. Students may well not get exposed to committees at all, and a student-run committee may not closely resemble a fully-fledged academic one, peopled by professors who have read Microcosmographia Academica. (For those readers of my blog who have previously not dipped into this early twentieth century classic by Francis Cornford based on the machinations of my very own University of Cambridge it is, as Wikipedia puts it,
‘a pessimistic view of academic politics presented in a readable and lively style, and is best known for its discussion of such principles as “The (Thin End of the) Wedge” and “The Dangerous Precedent“’.)
However, although some committees may feel like a splendid lesson in obfuscation, evasion and buck-passing carried out by members who variously (or simultaneously) suffer from chips on shoulders and/or super-inflated egos combined with a complete lack of empathy for anyone else in the room, I would suggest some committees are rather better than that. I may have listened recently to some of my esteemed colleagues rant and rave about a selection of university committees (none of which, I’m relieved to say, I am a member of) which had signally faced to achieve anything beyond the destruction of a few trees (or equivalently the clogging up of Dropbox space), but I still think they are a necessary part of progress. The alternative is dictatorship from the top, a dangerous way to make decisions as modern politics makes all too clear, or a complete anarchic free-for-all.
I have written up some caricatures of bad chairs before (here and here) so perhaps now it’s time to be more constructive and less flippant and to list what I think are the good characteristics, even vital ones if a committee is to go smoothly.
Firstly one needs to have read the papers. It seems so obvious but is not universal. The chair who constantly has to defer to the Secretary rarely conveys confidence in the minds of other committee members, or is likely to be able to spot a bullshitter, seize upon any special pleading or the utterance of deliberately misleading statements (let alone a ‘dangerous precedent’, see above), because they won’t have followed the nuances of any prior papers or previous decisions. Secondly, I always request a brief to be supplied. It is helpful to be reminded if there are new members joining the committee or old members retiring; I like to have an approximate timetable laid out so I can tell if I am getting too far behind schedule and equally can plan when an appropriate comfort break might be factored in; and if someone is attending only part of the meeting to make a presentation on a particular point one also needs to know when they will be turning up so that they don’t have to sit out in the cold too long. A brief may contain many such reminders as well as indications of the work of related committees or cross references to previous minutes which affect what is currently on the table.
So much for the mechanics to be completed in advance. Different committees will have very different dynamics. Personally I’m a great believer in informality since I think it promotes openness and honesty and I like to inject a few light-hearted asides to prevent a sense of dull heaviness creeping up on everyone. I have in my time been horrified to find myself on committees so formal and fusty that I was supposed to wear a gown (by which I don’t mean evening wear), or where I have been referred to as the Master of Churchill rather than by name. I once sat on a committee where we all were assigned a place at the table and had to sit in the same place each time – which we were expected to remember (a challenge round a large table with chairs densely packed) – because name cards were not thought appropriate.
I’m a great believer in such name cards: those silly and often collapsing Toblerone-shaped bits of card can save much embarrassment. This is certainly the case for the Chair and often for everyone, particularly where the committee is large, meets rarely or has a high turnover of members. Starting off the meetings by ensuring everyone introduces themselves, their affiliation and perhaps a little explanation of their role and hence why they’ve been appointed can also be helpful when a new committee convenes or there is a substantial influx of new members. All these seemingly trivial things can help the ‘ambience’ and ensure informality coupled with serious conversation, whereas if members are unsure who anyone is or where they’re from (literally and metaphorically) clarity of thought and debate can be impeded.
The Chair needs to know what is to be accomplished, another sentence that looks too obvious to need saying but isn’t. A good secretariat will make sure that papers are marked for decision, note or discussion. If it isn’t known which of these any particular paper is, and whether a decision is actually wanted/needed or the paper is simply there to prompt discussion for the further development of ideas, how can the appropriate outcome be achieved? Committees where there is lack of clarity of what is expected of them, or who they are reporting to (in other words what the governance chain is; committees should always know what their Terms of Reference are) can get into awful, inconclusive messes. If the papers don’t make all this clear, the Chair needs to intervene (ideally having checked it out in advance rather than blundering through this at the time) and elucidate.
All this is still pretty mechanical. The real challenge is how the Chair conducts the meeting. Can they maintain control, or do the loud-mouthed bores dominate the discussion? Can they ensure the discussion doesn’t disappear down a series of irrelevant rabbit-holes without ever reaching a conclusion? Can they ensure that the voices of those less confident are heard and that everyone is happy that they got their opportunity to express their point of view? All these are absolutely crucial skills. I have rarely had to resort to a sentence such as ‘we’ve heard your arguments and the majority do not agree’, but if necessary to stop endless rehearsing of the same arguments I will deploy such blunt statements. This of course relies on the Chair establishing what the majority view is.
So the final vital skill I will mention is the need, not only to let everyone have their say, but then to work out where the consensus sits – or indeed whether there is or is ever likely to be such a consensus given the evidence on the table. This position then needs to be summarised, neither too soon or too late in the discussion, to check that it is indeed what people were saying. After an hour’s debate it can be easy to lose the thread of multiple arguments, or miss some important nuance, so spelling out what conclusions seem to have been reached is absolutely vital for the minutes and for everyone’s peace of mind. At that point there is still time to revisit some sub-clause or tighten up some infelicitous phrase to make sure that in a month’s or year’s time the minutes will stand without ambiguity and backed up by the evidence there is.
If all goes well the Chair can then leave with a pleasing sense of a job well done, even if physically quite drained (and be in no doubt, chairing a large committee can be immensely tiring). But a combative committee, a committee where consensus has all too obviously not been reached, or where a sizeable minority feel their views have been treated with contempt, only stores up trouble for the future.