Thursday, July 16, 2009

Conservation of Committee Mass

Lately I have adopted a new practice when it comes to being asked to serve on a committee or do some other service task: I only agree to add a new service responsibility if I can also subtract one.

Of course it is hard to balance things exactly, so there are hazards in this seemingly simple approach. For example, the added committee might be a lot more work than the subtracted one. In some cases it can be difficult to know in advance what the time commitment and degree of satisfaction with a service responsibility will be. So you might actually be dropping a committee that didn't take much time and adding a committee that will consume your life. It's quite possible.

It can also be difficult to balance the administrative species (for lack of a better term) of committees. For example, it might be possible to subtract a department committee if asked to serve on a university committee, but the reverse would be more awkward unless the department committee is really important (e.g., a hiring committee, when there were such things).

And then there are professional service obligations that might be important to continue, even if you get loaded up with service work in your department/university.

But sometimes this system works. I was recently on a committee that wasn't a huge amount of time, but I really didn't like the committee dynamics and some of the things we had to deal with, so that was the one I dropped (with great glee) when asked to be on a different one at the same administrative level of the university.

You don't need an excuse to quit a committee that you find boring, useless, or otherwise abhorrent, but a handy one is that you are taking on another committee responsibility and will no longer have time for the Time-Sucking Boring Committee.


plam said...

Really? You can quit committees? (Yes, I am new at this "faculty" thing.)

John Vidale said...

That is also a handy way to decline requests to serve on committees. When asked to join committee X, respond, "Fine, but then I'll have to resign from responsibility Y", where Y to be something they need more.

Declining service requests for feeble reasons leads to both a rep of unhelpfulness and a lack of future requests that might be of more interest.

Alex said...

I believe that declining a request to join a committee, or quitting a committee, is something that you don't get to do until you're tenured.

Female Science Professor said...

That wasn't true in my case. As an assistant professor, I discussed with my department chairs and other senior colleagues what I could/could not do in terms of service work relative to priorities and time. I adjusted my service work accordingly, including quitting some committees, as different opportunities arose.

Kevin said...

In the past 2-3 years our department went from having almost all untenured faculty to almost all tenured. When there are very few tenured faculty, the assistant faculty cannot simply refuse to do committee service, and the tenured faculty have to do more than usual amounts of service to keep the load on the untenured faculty down to a reasonable level.

In a small department, it often helps to have some tasks done by the whole faculty (like grad student admissions and curriculum design) rather than creating separate committees. Other tasks are best delegated to single individuals to avoid the high overhead of committee meetings (like transfer admissions or catalog copy changes).

At our university, the amount of work a committee entails seems to be pretty well correlated with how much influence it actually has. Some campus committees (Planning and Budget, Academic Personnel, Educational Policy) have significant impact and insane workloads. Others (like Faculty Welfare, Library, Teaching) have modest workloads and almost no influence.