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Vol 38  No 17
July 20, 2006


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A changing institution leaves committee seats vacant

By Leslie Vryenhoek

Three calls for nominations over four months, yet this year’s Senate is still six vacancies short of a full house. That, according to Glenn Collins, University Registrar and Secretary of the Senate, is unprecedented.

“This has been a gradual slip over time. Ten years ago we would have had more nominations than vacancies, and we would have gone to elections.” Today, he said, it’s a struggle to fill the 78 seats, and some Senate committees also have gaps.

It’s a loss, Mr. Collins insisted, for an institution that relies on a collaborative environment. “Committees continuously reach conclusions that are far better than any one individual could reach alone. We risk losing a lot by not having committees with full membership.”

Dr. Steve Wolinetz, interim dean of arts and a previous chair of the Senate’s Committee on Committees, believes the problem stems from a complex mix of shifting demographics, a changing culture and different expectations for new faculty.

He noted that people still want the collegial governance that necessitates committees, but the availability of people to serve has diminished. “Before, there was a core of work horses ­ call them heavy lifters if you will ­ willing to give time to academic governance. But those who did the bulk of academic committee work in previous years are now either retired, or tired.”

It isn’t just shifting demographics but a changing campus culture that’s causing vacancies, Dr. Wolinetz said. Unlike faculty members who joined Memorial in the 1960s and ’70s, today’s newcomers are under much greater pressure to produce research results and to publish if they want to advance.

“Academic administrators have a responsibility to make sure that there are no impediments in the way,” he explained, “so it’s sensible to encourage young faculty to concentrate on their teaching and research, and leave the committee work to someone else.”

That someone else, Dr. Wayne Fife pointed out, is mid-level career academics ­ a situation he calls ironic. He remembers that as a young faculty member, it was not unusual for he and his colleagues to serve on more than a dozen committees.

“Now we’re being asked to step up again, but we’re also being asked to take on administrative roles, and to take on more graduate students,” Dr. Fife, head of the Anthropology Department, said. And the pressure is worse, he believes, for women because of the push to balance the gender on committees. “There’s a lot of fatigue.”

Some younger faculty members do answer the call to serve, but as Dr. Dennis Peters found, over-involvement can hinder a career.

Dr. Peters joined the Faculty of Engineering eight years ago, and soon found himself taking on committee work. For the past two years, he chaired Engineering’s undergraduate studies committee ­ a big, busy role ­ and also did a term on Senate.

“I’m interested in engineering education. I had a sense of obligation to the faculty and to my profession, and I also like having some input,” he explained, adding that a Senate seat offers an excellent education on the institution as a whole.

Dr. Peters devised a program for tracking his time. In 2005, he found, he spent fully 60 per cent of his work time on committee, professional and administrative efforts, rather than on teaching and research. That devotion had a cost. With too little time spent on his research, he was rejected for promotion and tenure his first time out. Although he was successful this year, he noted the limited time he had to conduct research made it a “painful, awkward process.

“The promotion and tenure process is looking for outstanding teaching and for research achievement, but they only require ‘acceptable service.’ Acceptable isn’t defined, but it is minimal.”

Dr. Peters has since stepped down from chairing the undergraduate committee to focus more on his research, despite protests from colleagues. “I had an interest in doing it and I did it well, so there was a lot of encouragement to keep doing it.”

Dr. Fife calls that the curse of competency. “If you’re mid-career and you’re competent ­ and especially if you’re a woman ­ you will get asked and asked again.” And he notes, with committees at the institutional, faculty and departmental level, there’s an ongoing struggle for the souls of faculty.

“If I was advising young faculty, I would encourage them to get involved, but to find the right balance,” Dr. Peter’s said. “I didn’t get the balance right, clearly, in my career.”

Dr. Tana Allen, head of the Classics Department, echoes that advice. Like Dr. Peters, she’s found committees can offer new faculty a window into the institution. However, she does caution that early in their careers, new faculty should ask to be put on committees that require less work, and offer more information about other parts of Memorial.

“If nothing else, it’s a great way to meet people to go to Bitters with,” she said.

Beating committee fatigue

Dr. Tana Allen is the lone member of the nominating committee for the Arts Faculty Council, yet she’s had an easy time finding members this year. “I’ve got new people, and people who are long-serving, people at all different stages of their career. It’s great ­ and it’s surprising.”

That success, she said, is the result of months of persistent e-mails, and a policy of making it as easy as hitting reply to join.

But she also worries about committee fatigue ­ or as she calls it, “committee despair” ­ making it harder to find willing members. “It can happen if people feel like they’re sitting in meetings pondering decisions that will never get made, or making decisions on issues that it turns out another committee is working on.” To avoid such overlap and duplication of effort, she suggests an inventory ­ a kind of clearinghouse ­ of committees campus-wide, detailing mandates and responsibilities.

Dr. Wayne Fife in anthropology agreed. “The automatic solution shouldn’t always be to form a committee. It’s possible there’s already a committee on campus whose mandate includes this.”

Both Drs. Allen and Fife also think there needs to be some guidance on what constitutes a reasonable committee load.

But Dr. Fife has a more radical solution he’s been pitching for years: “Every time we invent a new committee, we should have a rule that one has to be disbanded, because there’s not an infinitely expanding number of people to fill committees.”

He also advocates for smaller committees, especially in areas where the pool of experienced faculty is shrinking, and believes that fewer members can sometimes operate more effectively.

Dr. Dennis Peters, Engineering, believes that it isn’t just reducing the number of committees and balancing individual careers that can alleviate exhaustion. Some committees, he said, need to rebalance the way they function so that the vast majority of the workload doesn’t fall on the chair.

Given the ongoing retirements and the changed expectations for new faculty, Dr. Steve Wolinetz doesn’t think there are any easy answers to maintain a vibrant culture of collegial governance. “We have a very different culture now,” he said. “There is a point when some faculty will say ‘ok, it’s my turn,’ ­ but that depends on the type of people we hire.”

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