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November 21, 2002


The University Senate has 15 standing committees. For each committee there is a liaison person — a Senate officer or the immediate past president — to provide a link between the Senate standing committee and the Senate's executive committee. Each executive committee member serves as liaison to three or four Senate committees.

In serving as liaison to Senate committees, I have endeavored to keep in touch with their activities. For a variety of reasons I have not believed it necessary to attend every committee meeting, and it would have proved to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, because of other duties. I have kept myself informed of the committees' activities by reading the meeting agendas and the minutes. I felt I could determine, based on the content of the agendas and the minutes, which meetings were important enough to attend, because of matters that were likely to reach the Faculty Assembly and the Senate Council, so that I would be well-informed about the subjects. For some committees my attendance was, and is, quite rare; for others attendance is much more frequent.

This year, for the first time, I became the liaison to the Senate's University Press committee. On Oct. 11 I attended my first meeting of that committee and found it to be a particularly enjoyable, even exhilarating, experience. I saw the committee in action, reviewing six proposals for possible publications. I was greatly pleased by the experience because this was a committee dealing with issues related to the communication of art — art used in its broadest sense — and the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The committee members were very well-prepared and their enthusiasm for the role they played in the review process was evident.

There is a considerable difference between the processes and work of other committees which I have served either as a member or liaison, and those of the University Press committee. That committee is so closely linked to the University's academic mission that it is readily distinguishable from other Senate committees that, while they may deal with important subjects, do not provide their members with the opportunity or responsibility to apply their minds in a scholarly manner.

A great many meetings are held at the University that faculty and, in many instances, administrators, are expected to attend. My definition of a "meeting," of a committee or other assembled group, is at least several people coming together for a purpose, such as making a recommendation or a decision, with an agenda and with the expectation that minutes or some record of what takes place will be prepared.

Within the University there are department committees, school committees, promotion committees, search committees, thesis committees, dissertation committees, University-level committees and review committees, among others. Faculty members and administrators also serve on external committees: professional organizations, committees of research-granting entities, for example study sections of the National Institutes of Health, and on committees of entities with which the University has links for purposes of cooperation and coordination.

Do these committees achieve the level of productivity that one would hope, given the value of the time devoted to the preparation for, and participation in, the committee meetings? Without targeting any particular committee, I know there are committee meetings where the major, if not sole, content is a report or reports to the assembled committee members. When the sole purpose of a committee meeting is to report, or disseminate information about a project or program, often with the use of some audio-visual device, one might legitimately inquire whether it is necessary to hold the meeting.

If a report is to provide a foundation for discussion and possible action, the report should be furnished in advance to the expected attendees. Committees or other groups should not meet unless discussion and the exchange of ideas on subjects of mutual concern or interest by the attendees is expected, if not planned, even if the exchange leads to the conclusion that a particular subject does not warrant further attention.

At the beginning of the year, my department chairperson in the Graduate School of Public Health scheduled a total of three department meetings for the entire year. This is good scheduling. Let people know long in advance of the dates and times. If a matter arises that requires a meeting between scheduled meetings, the chairperson can call a special meeting.

Long ago I ran across a statement defining a committee as "a group that keeps minutes and wastes hours." Without a clear purpose for a particular meeting, it often is a waste of time for all concerned.

It is time to re-evaluate the need for meetings that do not have the attributes of the University Press committee meeting I described at the outset. Information can be provided to relevant persons, which they can review and absorb at times and places convenient to them. It is not necessary to place the people in a specific room at a specific time for such purpose. n

Nathan Hershey is immediate past president of the University Senate.

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