Welcome to the Committee of No

Experienced and workaholic academics need to start saying no to requests for them to increase workload

Source: iStock

Do you already do too much service as part of your academic appointment? Are you overworked yet somehow unable to turn down further requests for your time? If so, we’d like to invite you to join one more committee – or, if this committee doesn’t exist at your institution, to set it up yourself.

Seriously. This is not a ploy to get people already doing more than their fair share to work even harder, however. It’s a suggestion, passed down to us through academic lore, for how to proceed wisely when handling requests and managing your workload.

Our suggestion is to join a Committee of No. This committee has a very simple mandate: to help its members decide when to say “no” and to provide guidance on how to say it.

“Service” is a standard part of most full-time faculty positions, but rarely do institutions explain clearly how much to do or what to prioritise. Is sitting on administrative and governance committees more important than mentoring junior colleagues or liaising with student groups? Is editing a journal worthier than evaluating promotion files or providing outreach to the general public? Expectations are shaped by the largely unwritten rules of institutional or disciplinary culture, and they are therefore both hard to understand and easy to exploit.

For those of us who do not come from academic lineages, it can be difficult to find the hidden spaces of privilege in academia. Knowing when and how to say “no” is one of those spaces. Some colleagues are quicker than others to decline requests for service, especially when that service is internal and lacking in markers of prestige. When they decline too often, it leads to more work for the rest of us.

The responsibilities of service, particularly the often unglamorous and invisible labour within one’s own department or university, fall disproportionately on womenfaculty of colour and first-generation faculty. Increases to service load during the pandemic have been widely reported as especially high among female faculty. Clearly, not everyone is equally well placed to benefit from the frequent advice to “just say no”.

The more service we take on, the less room we leave in our schedules for research and teaching, which usually count much more heavily towards promotion and matter more in our development as scholars and teachers. We all need to be strategic about where we devote our service time. And those of us most inclined to say “yes” to requests – whether because of the pressures of precarity or a commitment to collegiality – could use support in deciding when and how to say “no”.

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So how do you create and run a good Committee of No? First, decide whom to invite. Probably not that colleague who already refuses every service request. True, they have relevant expertise in saying “no”, but they don’t need this committee. Better to recruit a small number of colleagues who face similar challenges from different perspectives. This is easiest if you are all at the same institution but have primary appointments in different divisions or departments. It is helpful to have different career stages represented too, so you can combine long institutional memory with newly emerging good ideas.

Meetings should be regular but attendance optional. Some can have special topics, although most should simply allow members to present requests they’ve received and report on recent developments in policy and practice. The main purpose is not to complete agenda items but to share experiences and build trust. To that end, meetings can (perhaps should) be held in informal or non-institutional locations. For requests that require a response before the next scheduled meeting, create an online chat group so committee members can quickly pose a question and get immediate feedback.

Consider each query carefully, then act in an advisory capacity to help colleagues enact good and deliberate decisions. The committee can suggest how to make agreement possible (for example, by explaining to a supervisor that you would really like to take on this responsibility, but only if they can release you from something else so that you’ll have the necessary time). It can highlight potential outcomes that members would not otherwise perceive (such as pointing out how a seemingly straightforward request might actually lead into a den of academic vipers). And, when necessary, it can assist with how to say “no” firmly and thoughtfully (for example, by rehearsing what to say until the delivery is spot on).

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At the very least, just knowing that you have a committee to consult will help you pause before saying “yes” right away every time someone asks you to do something.

Remember that a Committee of No should sometimes belie its name. Service is important. It allows us to govern our institutions, collaborate with colleagues and share our expertise with the wider world. This committee endorses service while acknowledging the limits of how much you can reasonably be expected to do.

Above all, a Committee of No provides a mutually supportive network that helps you see more clearly how you can say “no” or “not yet” to some requests, in order that you may more enthusiastically say “yes” to those where your energies will do the greatest good.

Mairi Cowan, Nicole Laliberté, Fiona Rawle, Monika Havelka, Sanja Hinic-Frlog and Barbara Murck are faculty members at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

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