My institution “has a proud tradition of faculty governance,” as a colleague once euphemistically summarized the heavy committee load professors carry here. Both descriptions are true. It is a proud tradition and a heavy load. Most full-time faculty here serve on at least two campus-wide committees. Then in addition to these are departmental committees, search committees, ad hoc committees, part-time administrative positions, department chairs who teach full time, and so on. It sounds like a lot because it is, but I am convinced it is the secret to the strength of our faculty community.
First, there is the sense of buy that in committee work can bring. Professors always complain about committee meetings, but when pushed, most faculty would defend the work that their own committees do. We like to have a say in how the place is run, whether that place be the department, division, or even the whole university. When committees I have never served on make decisions that impact the work I do, I know that those decisions were made by colleagues I trust who are prayerfully seeking the flourishing of our students and our institution. I might not like every decision they make, but I can buy in to their choices because I trust the process and the people.
Despite the reputation committee meetings have for being dry and pointless, I often find committee meetings (dare I say it) fun. As a people, professors tend to be curious, bright, and interested in problems. In a week where far more of my time is invested in responding to emails and marking student work than to my own research, it can be satisfying to spend some time thinking about institutional challenges and opportunities. A committee meeting can invite me to think about our institutions’ strengths, traditions, and aspirations in ways that rarely happen in my biology classroom or during a sidewalk conversation with a colleague. I find satisfaction in collaborating with coworkers, using different parts of my brain, and finding solutions to real world problems.
But perhaps the most significant value of committee meetings is that they bring together faculty members who would not otherwise know one another. Engaging in work with colleagues from across campus is demonstrably valuable. The results of our efforts are better because of our varied disciplinary perspectives. I know that when considering how to evaluate general education learning outcomes it was invaluable for our committee to include both faculty with training in quantitative data and those with experience with qualitative data. The voice of a professor who regularly teaches entrepreneurship encouraged creativity and a willingness to attempt ideas our institution has not tried before. Our assessment is clearer, more faithful to the commitments of our community, and more creative because of the diverse team who shared their expertise and perspectives to craft it.
Beyond just our results, through my committee service I have made friends in the departments of history, literature, communications, and business. As a biology professor, I spend most of my time in the science building, most of my hours in a science lab, and socialize mostly with science professors and students. Committee meetings pull me out of my silo and invite me to engage with colleagues across campus to think collectively about issues that impact us all. Learning from and working with professors from across campus helps me to understand the wonderful work being done on my campus outside of the science building. The diligence and patience my colleagues show when navigating difficult problems is inspiring. I admire them. If we work together long enough, eventually we start to like each other. Working together becomes (I will say it with confidence this time) fun.
Many of our institutions are facing difficulties right now from threats as diverse as division, enrollment decline, budgetary deficits, and disruptive technologies. Committee work can build trust in the institution, lead to creative answers to hard problems, and forge a community out of a committee.
Perhaps this is why Jesus left a committee behind to carry out His mission. Acts 1:12-26 is essentially the minutes of the first meetings of the Christian Fellowship. The minutes record the location, list those in attendance, highlight key conversations, and address the action item. We even see nominations for the executive committee. Jesus must have known that the difficulties ahead would necessitate a diverse group of believers working together, using their varied gifts, shared freely in love. I suspect the same is true of the problems that we face today.