Meetings: counting the minutes

Hate meetings? You need them more than you think, says Sally Feldman

May 1, 2014

Apart from the ridiculous size of the vice-chancellor’s salary and the continuing absurdities of the research excellence framework, there is only one topic that is guaranteed to have academics nodding in agreement over their senior common room coffees: the pointless ubiquity of meetings.

Why are there so many? Why do they drag on for so long? Why do we have to attend the Learning and Teaching Committee if we’ve already been to the Accreditation of Prior Experiential Learning Committee? Why does the professor of English appear to take so much pleasure in the sound of his own voice? Why is it that in the age of digital communication we still seem incapable of making a decision without having 30 people sitting around a wooden table for the best part of three hours?

Academics are not alone in their grousing. It is a national dissatisfaction. According to a new survey from the technological manufacturer Sharp Europe, UK employees spend more time in meetings than their European neighbours. Small wonder perhaps that 34 per cent admit to falling asleep during them and that more than a quarter of all workers think meetings are too long and boring. And what makes them so boring? Yes, it is people like that professor of English with his elaborately honed self-serving anecdotes or the lecturer from the philosophy department who inevitably detects a lengthy point of principle in the item about students riding bikes along the covered way. According to the survey, most regular attendees see the bane of committees as the person who talks too much. And that, as we all know, is invariably someone other than ourselves.

Why is it that in the age of digital communication we still seem incapable of making a decision without having 30 people around a table?

Indeed, so anxious was a former colleague of mine, David, to avoid being cast in this role that he used to turn up assiduously to academic council, but never spoke. As meetings were by definition always too long, his total silence could only make them just that little bit shorter.

But however much everyone seems to resent them, we do persist in calling meetings, relying on them and we worry about missing them just as much as we find ruses to escape them. As the Sharp survey suggests, there does seem to be something peculiarly British about our addiction to them. Whether it is the Brownies’ jumble sale committee or an explosive trade union gathering, meetings are part of the fabric of our culture. What do you get when you put three English people in a room? A chair, a secretary and a treasurer.

So isn’t it time to reconsider this cynical dismissal of meetings? Instead of regarding our grudging attendance and half-hearted involvement as a cynical badge of academic membership, perhaps we should recognise it instead as a fatal surrender, undermining the idea of the university as a community of self-governing scholars.

Committees may be too full of procedural technicalities, too concerned with “matters arising” and “any other business” and with the distinction between points of information and points of order. But they also contain firm democratic rules about the manner in which decisions are made. Nobody can claim that they wish to ensure this or that outcome because it will suit their own purposes. They have to argue in terms of the general good and have to cite objective evidence in pursuit of their goal. The sociologist Max Weber provided a brilliant analysis of the frustrations and fallibilities of bureaucracy but he also defended it, arguing that it “ensures a measure of objectivity by prescribing in advance the criteria for decision-making”.

If you take away the objective criteria for decision-making that lie at the heart of all committee work, then you expose yourself to the danger of more personal subjective grounds: the sort of decision-making that goes on between the vice-chancellor and his favoured acolytes in a private dining room. Casting votes, chair’s action, agendas, terms of reference – all are vital rules in safeguarding justice. They are the clumsy tools of democracy. Without them, dictatorship will reign. And that is what is threatened as committees are systematically eliminated. Even though it doesn’t always feel that way.

When the Quality Assurance Agency questioned whether we had rather too many meetings at the University of Westminster, we immediately set up a committee to decide how to cut down the number of committees. These more particular, topic-based, relatively uninfluential committees are the ones that abound. The big hitters – the ones dealing with finance, governance, high-level strategy – are gradually being dismantled, being turned into the personal fiefdoms of management.

Academics who now complain about this realignment of power might do well to ponder the idea that they have only been so quickly robbed of their former democratic chambers of debate because they were suckers for anyone in management who promised them what looked like a gift from the gods: fewer meetings.

It may seem like a blessed relief when a committee is disbanded – but consider what you lose. How many more resolutions will be passed without you, how much valuable information missed, how many more cutbacks or new efficiencies will be approved unchecked? And even worse, when you later rail against some mindless new requirement you’ll be told that you voted for it. Meetings, however tedious, however long, however concerned with obfuscation and detail, are your one protection against outright tyranny.

You may be able to do without the blended learning committee, the student experience taskforce, the enterprise group or the timetabling team. These concerns can be dealt with in different and more effective ways than by formal committee. But wouldn’t you like to have a say on staffing reductions, financial cutbacks, student targets, course rationalisations, research allocations – and even the vice-chancellor’s salary?

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